The Synonym Trick: Affect vs. Effect

When I was in elementary school, phonics played a prominent role in the curriculum. Even at that young age, I recognized and appreciated the structure and rules, and I remember being surprised when others struggled. It was a method that resonated with me (heh), and I usually achieved high marks in spelling.

However, there are times when phonics lets me down, especially in the use of similar-sounding words: “appraise/apprise”, “elicit/illicit”, “passed/past”, and “awhile/a while”. Suffixes can also be a pain, such as “-ible/-able”.

“Affect/effect” is another, and I’m not alone in my confusion. They are among the most misused words in English.

While editing my manuscript today, I discovered a pesky “affect” had survived several rounds of revisions. I’m at the point with my writing where I don’t chastise myself for the miss, but I’d still prefer to learn from the mistake. So I decided I would find a way to minimize it happening again.

I created a mnemonic device. If I can substitute “outcome”, then I should use the noun “effect”. If I can replace with “create”, then the verb “affect”. Simple as that.

Sidebar: If you’re a person who uses “effect” as a verb or “affect” as a noun – both rarer use cases – this won’t work as well. I never do, so I think this will have the desired outcome effect.

The key for me will be remembering I’ve got this new tool in a crowded writer’s toolbox. Like my actual toolbox, the frequently-used ones always stay in sight, at the top. But I’ve been doing similar replacement tricks for years (illicit things bring ills; you appraise the prize), so I think this one will stick.

Will this prove foolproof? We’ll see. English is so fantastically, wonderfully, deliciously complicated that every rule can be broken. That’s when another rule of mine comes into play: when in doubt, rewrite.

I hope this post has the desired effect on your writing!

Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, November 2022

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