Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Can you finely and effectly deal with this please?

So last night after my Fiction Writing Workshop one of my best students stopped me and with a worried look in her eyes asked me the question I have been dreading since I was a tiny little graduate student: "Can you explain to me when it's right to use effect as a verb?  Because I just can't -- I've looked up the rules and I just don't get it."

"Um," I said.

"Also," she said, "the whole difference between affect and effect in general.  I'm just not sure I understand."

"Ah," I said.  "Don't you want to ask me about lie and lay?  Because -- "

"No, no, I get those.  It's just affect and effect.  Well, also bring and take, but those aren't bothering me right now. But my history professor took off ten points on my midterm because I used affect as a verb when I should have used effect, he says, but I don't see what he means, even after looking it up," she hesitated.  "Anyway, if you could explain it."

I flung myself to my knees and exposed my utter failings and ignorance, which I find is the best tactic at this point.  "I have never been able to tell those apart either," I told her.  "I've looked the rule up a hundred times, it makes no sense to me.  Affect is usually a verb, and effect is usually a noun.  That's the rule I can remember.  But affect can be a noun in the psychological sense, and effect can be a verb if we're effecting a change.  I've memorized that," I confessed.  "To me, the words sound exactly the same and it's really hard for me to tell them apart."

She was nodding as she wrote this down.  "Okay."

"Maybe check your sentence and see if that's the sense you were using it in?" I said.  "But affect the other way -- affect with an a -- also seems to me to be really close to effect with an e.  The bad weather affected the crops.  How is that different from effected a change?  Congress hoped to effect the economy with the stimulus?  I can't see a difference."

She was nodding and writing.

"And a lot of these rules," I added, "you have to remember, they're really just shibboleths."

"What now?"

"Rules made up as gate keepers.  Ways to separate the rabble from the upper class.  So the rules, they're deliberately bizarre like this, they're made impossible to understand. On purpose. They're meant to be something you're almost guaranteed to get wrong.  That way we can keep you outside of the gate, if we want to badly enough.  Like literacy tests, for voting?"

She had looked up from her notebook, her expression gone still.

I shrugged.  "I wish I was kidding," I told her.


nicoleandmaggie said...

Pretty sure you only ever effect change in regular speech. :)

But affect means to influence, and effect is when you're actually making something happen not through your influence but through making it happen. (I mentally substitute "make" for effect.)

When in doubt, use affect as the verb unless the next word is "change" (or a word modifying change).

Affect as a noun is pretty easy for me-- I just substitute "emotion". I know psychologists would quibble with that, but for a non-practitioner, that's good enough.

"Congress hoped to effect the economy with the stimulus?" doesn't seem right to me. You can't effect an economy unless there's no economy to start with. The best they can hope for is to affect an already existing economy.

Lay and lie I can never remember.

delagar said...

See, I told you I can't tell them apart, N&M.

The rule makes no sense to me.

Lay and Lie is *easy* though.

Lay is transitive and lie is intransitive.

The hens lay eggs and you lie down.

I'm lying on the bed.

I lay the handsome space captain.

Like that.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Oh yes, I know the difference between the two, but I can never remember which is which. Or if I do I have to think really hard about it, and I'm not always sure that I get it right even after thinking.

Anonymous said...

What you need is an effective way to explain it, then. Hmmm. -L

delagar said...

I need to effect an explanation that will affect my students, L!! No lie!

LizardBreath said...

"Affect" as a verb is easy -- the subject does something, and it has some influence on something else. Anyone normally literate is going to naturally use "affect" correctly, I'd guess. Same with "effect" as a noun -- there's no pitfall to fall into there. And "affect" as a noun is uncommon, but not confusing, because its meaning (demeanor) is pretty far off the other three.

The only tricky one is "effect" as a verb. And the easy answer is that it's kind of pretentious, so if you're not sure of yourself never use it -- write around it. But if you're going to use it, it means to bring something about in a purposefully intentionally way.

So, what N&M said, but I find it easier to think about if I identify which is the hard case.