Grammar Gremlins: Pesky Pairs

When it comes to troublesome pairs of words, affect and effect are right at the top of the list. Hordes of faithful readers (well, actually, two friends) have asked the Grammar Gremlins to spell out the difference between them. Both can be used as verbs or nouns, and they look and sound much alike.

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As a verb, affect means to influence or to (let’s add to the confusion) have an effect on: The new bus schedule affected Jane’s ability to get to class.

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Affect can also be used to indicate pretension or an attempt to impress: Joe was from Milwaukee, but he affected a British accent, hoping to impress women.

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The verb effect is more definitive, meaning to bring about, accomplish, or (possible mnemonic here) execute: If we all work together, we can effect change.

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To pack them into one sentence: The administration effected several changes in the class schedule, which affected many students.

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Effect is the far more commonly used noun. What will the effects of the schedule change be?

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Affect as a noun (with the emphasis on the first syllable) has a rather narrow meaning in psychology, referring to the expression or appearance of emotion. In any other context, the noun you want is effect.

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In short, affect refers to influence or pretense, while effect refers to accomplishment or execution.

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Another pair I’ve run into recently, incite and insight, have very little in common, but people either confuse them or just forget how to spell them.

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Incite is a verb meaning to set in motion (we all remember “inciting incident,” don’t we?) or to stir up, and is pronounced with the accent on the second syllable.

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Insight is a noun referring to understanding or intuition, pronounced with the accent on the first syllable.

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Jane managed to incite that riot without any insight into what she had done.

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Here’s a trio of sound-alikes to finish off this month (I’ll be back with more). Marshal is a job title or function, usually for a law or military officer: a Federal Marshal, a Field Marshal, a parade marshal. Marshall is a name. And martial is an adjective meaning warlike or military.

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Marshal Dillon arrested Elmer Marshall for violating martial law.

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Only marshal also serves as a verb: Let’s marshal our resources and discuss more pesky pairs next time.

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