Affect vs. Effect: What language teaches us about the nuanced nature of ideas.

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I was just out of college, working for a friend at the Louisville Orchestra, selling concert tickets to make a little cheddar before heading into full-time fund raising mode for what I thought would be a missionary life in Africa. One day I stumbled upon the whole “affect vs. effect” dilemma. Which is it? I walked over to the staff writer (English major) and asked her, and what she said has always stuck with me. “Remember A is for Action. Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun and is about the results of the action.” That little rule has saved my bacon so many times. Until it didn’t. Until it came up short. Because like many things in life, the issue is more nuanced than that. Words often have a wide range of meaning.

I faithfully applied the rule for two decades, until I learned it had its limits. Here’s the crazy maker: 

Affect and effect can BOTH be a verb and a noun. Who let that happen? Well, first of all, it’s common for words to be used as either a verb or a noun. Think of words like ‘run.’

“He went for a run.” (noun)

“She runs fast.” (verb)

Same words. Two different meanings. Though in this example, the overlap of the meaning is pretty obvious. I could have tried to draw out very different meanings, like when the noun ‘run’ means something like a span of time “the team put together a good run in the playoffs.” (a period of time or sustained effort). In fact, if you look up ‘run’ in a good dictionary, the number and variety of uses of the noun form is staggering.

OK. Back to Affect vs. Effect. Here’s a little stab at discussing both words in their verb and noun forms.

Affect the verb means to act upon something so as to bring about a response or result. “Her speech affected the outcome of the vote.” This is the most common use of this word. 

Effect the noun refers to the results of a situation. “Covid had a horrific effect on his respiratory capacity.” Also the most common use of this word.

But, flip the script and we see the wider range of meaning:

Affect the noun refers to a person’s emotional temperament or way of carrying ones self. “Her affect had a refined air of English nobility.”

Effect the verb means to bring something into existence. “It was the duty of the legislature to effect the will of the citizens.”

I read on some other site this helpful difference in the verb form of these words:

“To Affect” something, it must Already be there.

“To Effect” something is to bring it into Existence.

Here’s the point

Language, like ideas, can carry great nuance. Meaning depends on context. An immature thinker wants to apply a rule of thumb to ever situation. To slap a label down and call it done. They want to make everything right or wrong, black or white, evil or good, Republican or Democrat, G.I. Joe or Transformers, Petra or Stryper. You are against us or with us. 

But a mature, nuanced thinker is able to see an idea from multiple angles and consider the variety of potential outcomes.  A nuanced thinker doesn’t have to cancel, boycott, or protest an idea at first glance. A nuanced thinker doesn’t take the first report from the news at face value. A nuanced thinker knows there is ALWAYS two sides (at least) to a story, and if you’ve only heard one, you are wise to hold off passing judgment too soon. I heard a well known thoughtful individual say he would refrain from forming an opinion on a topic until he had read at least five books on the subject as to avoid a hasty conclusion.

Yes there is a time to choose sides, yet if everything is a battle, if every conversation is do or die, well, that’s an exhausting way to live. Dare I say, that affect might affect the effect you hope to effect on others.

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