Common Mistakes: Affect vs. Effect

These two words sound so similar — how can you tell which one to use when? Even though they’re almost the same in spelling and pronunciation, there’s a difference in the meaning, and choosing the right one will help make your writing sound smarter. Even native speakers commonly make this mistake, so learn the difference and you can get ahead of the curve!

Explanation | Exceptions | Examples

What’s the difference?

Generally, affect acts like a verb while effect takes the role of a noun. You can think of affect as meaning to influence. In contrast, effect usually means a result. Think about which meaning fits the sentence, and it will become clear which word you should use. For example, take a look at the sentence below.

The song ___ Sam.

Which one would you choose, affect or effect? Consider the role the word will play:

[The song] = subject
[___] = verb
[Sam] = object

The word will act as a verb, so you know you can pick action-word affect with confidence.

The song affected Sam.

On the other hand, what about this sentence?

The ___ was impressive.

Based on its place in the sentence, what do you think? Let’s break it down.

[The ___] = subject
[was] = verb
[impressive] = subject complement

Since it will take the place of a noun, pick effortless effect for best results.

The effect was impressive.

Use these alliterative descriptions to help you remember: affect is active while effect is effortless. The word with an a mostly acts as a verb, while the word with an e is an inactive noun.

Great, it’s easy! But wait…

As with most English rules, there are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes these two words will take exactly opposite roles, but such cases are rare. For simplicity, you can just remember a couple of phrases to cover the exceptions.

If the noun phrase is about emotions, affect might be the word you need. For example, you would write, “The boy showed a sad affect.” If you substituted emotion or result into the sentence, emotion would sound better. In such cases, go with affect.

Likewise, effect can act as a verb when someone is making a very strong statement. You might say, “to effect change”, which means to cause change very directly.

Both of these are far less common than the usages described above, however, so unless you are writing these particular phrases, stick with active affect and effortless effect and you should get it right!

Let’s Practice!

Consider whether the word will be a verb or a noun in the following sentences, then choose (a) affect or (b) effect. Check your answers below.

  1. The ___ was really awesome.
  2. The exam ___ his grade.
  3. The ___ of your advice on her is obvious.
  4. Learning English before he went to study abroad ___ his experience.
  5. The new road had a huge ___ on the little town.

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(Answers: 1.b 2.a 3.b 4.a 5.b)

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