Flash Card: The Elephant Effect

ImageOh, "effect" and "affect" — why can't one of you be a noun and the other a verb? That would make life so much easier. But no, you are each a noun AND a verb and thus the inspiration for much head-scratching.

For what it's worth, however, the average Jane will generally be called upon to use "effect" as a noun and "affect" as a verb.

A special effect is a noun. The effect that stems from the cause is a noun. Waiting for the drug to take effect — "effect" is a noun there, too. As Grammar Girl points out: "Effect with an e has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but to me the meaning 'a result' seems to be at the core of all the definitions."

The most common use of "affect" is as a verb meaning "to influence" (or, dare I say, "to have an effect"). The weather affects my mood. The number of eggs affects the chewiness of the pancakes. The cone on his head affects the dog's ability to lick his wound.

Once in a blue moon you'll come across a verb form of "affect" that suggests pretense or "affectation," as in "When Cindy returned from her semester in Surrey, we couldn't help noticing that she'd affected an English accent."

If you can remember that, in most cases, "e" equals noun and "a" equals verb, you'll be well ahead of the game. But how do you remember that?


The average Jane will generally be called upon to use "effect" as a noun and "affect" as a verb.

You need to find your "e" noun, the noun that will remind you that "effect" — with an "e" — is a noun. I like "elephant," a sizable noun. I equate "effect" (with an "e") to "elephant" (with an "e"). I've even invented "the elephant effect" (which manifests itself when you inhale four kinds of stuffing, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of pie).

So when I need to write something like "The effect of bad grammar is diminished credibility and ultimately lost sales," I think: "The word I'm looking for is a noun, like "elephant," which starts with an "e," like ... EFFECT!"

Yes, employing a mnemonic device like this means a little extra effort — but mistakenly writing "The affect of bad grammar is diminished credibility and ultimately lost sales" means a prospective client runs screaming.

Of course you could also associate "affect" and "verb" by coming up with a go-to "a" verb* — but picturing an elephant is easier. Nouns, being people, places or things, are more visual and thus more easily remembered than verbs, which are essentially actions and thus more abstract. (Plus, all the "a" verbs I just thought of — access, act, aggregate — also happen to be nouns, which compromises their usefulness in this context. An elephant, on the other hand, is only a noun, is always a noun, is indubitably a noun.)

And now, to dash my elegant oversimplification upon the shoals of exception.

ImageYes, sometimes "effect" is a verb. Perhaps the most common use of "effect" as a verb is in the construction "to effect change," which suggests some sort of achievement. See also "to effect a more productive relationship," "to effect a raise in pay" and "to effect a more effective method of keeping the squirrel out of the bird feeder."

And yes, "affect" can be a noun. According to Wikipedia, "Affect refers to the experience of feeling or emotion" and is frequently invoked in discussions of how a person is feeling vs. how she appears to be feeling. As in "Her affect is off," which often applies to the psychopathic perps peppering procedurals. With this form of "affect," the stress is on the first syllable instead of the second, more like "after" than the "affect" in "your whining does not affect me."

Fortunately, this iteration of "affect" doesn't come up much if you don't work in psychology. So at least when you're speaking, you can use "effect" or "affect" without having to think before you pronounce.

When writing "effect" or "affect," however, you'd be wise to stop and address the elephant in the room.

*Can YOU come up with a go-to "a" verb suitable for reminding people that "affect" is (almost always) a verb? It should be a verb that is not also a noun (like the aforementioned "access," "act" and "aggregate"), and it should evoke a concrete image (unlike, for instance, "accept" or "assume," which are both a little too conceptual to visualize easily). Seriously — if you think of something, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it