Monday, February 7, 2011

Affect vs. effect - a quick reference for greatest effect

Most of the time knowing when to use "affect" and "effect" is pretty easy. Why? Because most of the time, affect is a verb, and effect is a noun. OK, over-achievers, I promise we'll get to the exceptions later. But for now, we'll start with an example.


The rain affected Josie's eye makeup, and the effect was quite sexy - if you like raccoons that is.

Since the rain is the subject, and it is acting upon her eye makeup, you use the verb affected. And since Josie's eye make up is the object, and it is being acted upon by the rain, you use the noun effect. 

Let's try another.

SnOMG 2011 dumped so much white stuff on Chicago February 1 and 2, that it negatively affected the travel plans of even the most well-connected Aldermen. The blizzard pummeled the city, and one effect was stranded Lake Shore Drive commuters. Many were stuck for nine hours, unable to move their vehicles. Fortunately, the ability to honk and fling obscenities remained fully intact.

In the above example, SnOMG 2011 affected (verb) travel plans, and the blizzard had an effect (noun) on LSD commuters.

Quick Tip

It may help you to think of it this way: effect, in many cases, is synonymous with a result. So if you're referring to something that happened to someone (or some thing) or something that was caused by the actions of another thing, use "effect." While affect (or affected) is synonymous with an action. So if you're referring to something one did to another (or how one acted upon another), use "affect," "affected," or "affecting."

Effect Examples:
  • Your charms have lost their effect on me; diamonds, however, have not. (Result: Charms lost out to diamonds after umpteenth empty apology).
  • The effect of gambling is almost always an empty wallet. (Result: Gambling caused empty wallet).

  • The years have not had a pleasant effect on his chins. (Result: Years caused saggy wattle).
Affect/Affected/Affecting Examples:
  • Adding sugar to coffee affects the flavor. (Action: Adding sugar makes coffee taste better).

  • Her sunny disposition is affecting my ability to wallow in much-deserved self pity after my prized Apple Pie lost out to Wilma's blueberry loaf at the Seawell County Fair. (Action: Her disposition is impeding my pity party).

  • Grandma's insistence to baby her Infiniti G35X and DWG (drive while granny) affected our arrival at the screening of "Scream 3756 - the Sequel." (Action: Grandma's "careful, defensive driving" caused us to be quite late for the newest horror film. Wait a thinks she was employing selective DWG techniques. Clever Granny - I should never underestimate you!)

  • The Chicago auto dealership's written threat to terminate Carlos should he not remove his Green Bay Packer's tie immediately affected the company's image (and business) when Carlos forwarded the offending email to the media and took a job with a competitor. (Action: Misguided team loyalty caused long-term headaches).
The Exceptions

I warned you of the exceptions, and for the sake of time and clarity, I'll only briefly cover them here. If you want to know more, you can always send me an email.

Ready? Here we go!

Affect as a Noun

Rarely, affect is used as a noun. In mental health circles, affect describes the way a person appears to be feeling. Merriam Webster defines affect (the noun) this way: "a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion"--see my source.

Example: Peter's flat affect led his psychologist to believe that he was depressed. 

Effect as a Verb

Again rarely, effect is used as a verb. It can mean: to cause something to come into being; to bring about by overcoming significant obstacles; or to accomplish.

Example: The people of Egypt hope to effect a regime change by taking to the streets and demanding true democracy.

Bravo! You've now tackled one of the most common errors in the English language! Did I have a positive effect on your grammar rule vault? Leave me a comment and let me know. Here's to hoping....

See you soon! 


With bated breath, I wait for the results, hoping I'll be able to breathe a sigh of relief

While reading a transcript of a post-State of the Union address interview between Bill Maher and Wolf Blitzer, I was reminded of one of my biggest pet peeves - when people use the words "breath" and "breathe" incorrectly.  (Shame, shame copy editor of the transcript! How much are they paying you?)

Granted, sometimes a mistake like that can be explained away as a typo. It's easy to leave the last letter off when rushing to get those words on paper (or the screen). But more often than not, people just don't know which is correct, so they just guess.

Because I care deeply about each and every one of you (is that two or three of you now?), I'm here to clear up any confusion. Let's start with definitions, courtesy of Merriam Webster. Since there are a number of definitions from which to choose, I'll just pick one for each, and we'll take it from there.

Breath - "air inhaled and exhaled in breathing" - the air is the breath.

Breathe - "to draw air into and expel it from the lungs"- the air is involved in the act of drawing breath or breathing.

At first glance, those definitions are similar, so, were I not here to clarify, you'd be at risk of falling into an even deeper state of confusion. Therefore, I have some examples:

Let's use the word BREATH in a couple of sentences.

1. After raiding the cat's litter box for an afternoon treat, my dog's breath could have sent even Oscar the Grouch running for cover.

In that sentence, the breath refers to the stinky air emitting from the dog's mouth - not to the dog's act of breathing. It's a noun in this case and most of the time.

2. Just the act of putting on high heels and short shorts for the Go Daddy Super Bowl commercial left Joan Rivers nearly out of breath, but the risky (and risqué) stunt paid off. Joan's cosmetic surgeon was so very pleased to hear that, even without beer goggles, male football fans from all over the world found her legs quite sexy. Representatives from Go Daddy have yet to comment whether that actually was Joan's body.

Now let's try BREATHE:

1. Trevor required four stitches below his eye after he leaned in to tell his wife Laura, who was in her 30th hour of labor, to "stop whining and complaining and just breathe - you know, like the Lamaze teacher taught you." 

In that sentence, breathe refers to the act of breathing. And it's a verb. It's an action verb, to be precise, and when Laura heard the verb, it most definitely encouraged action - Laura walloping Trevor square in the face. As you might have guessed, it's typically used as a verb.

2. John Boehner, our newest Speaker of the House, was so busy crying during his last speech that it's a wonder he even found the time to breathe.

Got it? Good. 

Now it's your turn. 

Try filling in the blanks with the correct word (your only choices for this quiz are "breath" and "breathe"). Don't worry - it will be over soon, and you can then breathe freely until your next grammar quiz. I know, I know! You can't wait! My blogs are like a breath of fresh, enlightening, effervescent air. What can I say? I try.

Living and Breathing Grammar - Quiz Number One

Rule Number One: No cheating! Answers supplied at the end of the blog are there for grading purposes only! Now, take a big, cleansing breath, and GO!

When I was in second grade and on a field trip, my superstitious teacher told me to hold my (1)________ as we drove past the cemetery so the free roaming evil spirits wouldn't be able to take over my body. She explained that they can get in through your mouth or nose when you (2)________. It was a huge cemetery, and looking back, I can't help but wonder whether she had confidence in my ability to go without taking a (3)________ for so long, or whether she secretly hoped I'd fail, (4)________ in the spirits, and go all Exorcist on the school bus. Come to think of it, they did serve split pea soup for lunch that afternoon. It's all coming together now. Sneaky teacher. Good thing I was a champion (5)________ holder. And also, I have the most amazing super power -- with the right dose of concentration, I can (6)________ through my feet, so regardless of my (7)________ holding ability, that slow drive past the cemetery was not as risky to me as it was to the 27 other 8-year-old classmates sharing the bus with me. So you can (8)________ a sign of relief. I was fine! Evil spirits be damned. But did I mention that Roy Wilkinson was sitting next to me? For the love of God, his (9)________ was horrendous! Even after the 15 shots of Binaca.

OK. Now you can check your answers. How did you do? If you got three right, you're probably just about average. I find that randomly chosen "statistic" utterly alarming, but I have been known to be a bit dramatic. If you happened to have answered all of the questions correctly, let me first say: I love you! I honestly love you. And I hereby knight you Sir Grammar Bitch. (As an aside, I've heard that even women can be called Sir now. In fact, during a recent trip to a drive-through of some unnamed fast food Mexican chain that may or may not offer actual meat in their beef tacos, the lovely cashier repeated my order and then said, "Thank you, Sir. Please pull forward when you can." Now, I'm an alto, but I don't think I sound like a man unless I've got the mother of all head colds, but I digress - far too often and far too far).

There. That wasn't so difficult, was it? I know it left you wanting more. And more. So come back soon, ya hear? I'll be waiting with bated breath for the moment I can breathe a sigh of relief for you've returned.


P.S. A fun story for those who have stuck around this far: When I ran this through the Microsoft Word spell check, it kept telling me to change "breath" to "breathe" and vice versa. I'm not sure whether to be glad I'm smarter than my computer or sad that the person tasked with providing a correct spell/grammar checker failed miserably!

Answer Key  

(Hey! Stop cheating! As my college Roomie #2 always said: "Cheaters never prosper!")

1. breath
2. breathe
3. breath
4. breathe
5. breath
6. breathe
7. breath
8. breathe
9. breath