Effect Affect Problems and Edgar Allan Poe

Effect Affect Problems

Teacher with 'affect' and 'effect' on blackboard

So, which one is it?

Effect or Affect?  Affected or Effected?

If I had charged a tenner every time I had been asked that over the past ten years in my job, I could probably have funded my first six months as a freelancer at least!

As the renowned words man, the only person in the company with the job title of ‘writer’, and the one responsible for ensuring everyone used clear, accurate and understandable language, I was used to getting asked questions about grammar, punctuation and correct usage of words. I actively encouraged it.

However, I was always surprised by the unremitting regularity of this particular conundrum – whether to use ‘effect’ or ‘affect’, ‘affected’ or ‘effected’. It used to happen once at least every couple of weeks. In a company that employed around 120 people.

But the most surprising thing was that it was always the same people who asked the question.  About 10 or 12 of them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as we all tend to have the odd ‘blind spot’ when it comes to selecting the right option when words sound the same, but are spelled differently. As well as the ‘effect/affect’ ensemble, there were also the ‘principal/principle’ posse and the ‘stationery/stationary’ squad who contacted me to resolve their particular query on a slightly less regular basis.

I did my utmost to try to help those affected by the effect/affect problem, and make the distinction between them as clear as I could. I explained as clearly as possible, with examples and occasionally diagrams, that affect was in almost all cases used as a verb, and that effect was in almost all cases used as a noun, apart from in certain sectors of the banking industry where the almost Dickensian phrase ‘to effect a transaction’ was still in use, to their eternal shame.

Affect or effect? The pies have it ....

The penny would then appear to have dropped, the baffled expression on their face replaced with a smile, and everything would be right with the world again.

Until the next time.

In most cases, people were confused about the verb form, rather than the noun. They couldn’t decide between ‘affected’ and ‘effected’, or how something would ‘affect’ a situation or ‘effect’ it. For some of them, instinct said ‘affected’, but they just didn’t have the confidence to make the choice when they put fingers to keyboard.

And that’s the key to it I think.


If you have a choice between two similar sounding words and you know you struggle to tell the difference between them, human nature tends to remind you of the weakness and undermine your confidence before you’ve even started the sentence.

Memory jogger

That’s where you need a little extra help.

And where a mnemonic, or memory jogger can provide you with the boost you need.

For principal v principle, thanks to the prevalence of The Simpsons, the mere mention of ‘Principal Skinner’ and the image of Bart sat outside his office, is sufficient to encourage people to make the right choice.

And for stationery v stationary there’s the old stand-by of ‘e for envelope’, which I always follow up with ‘a’ for ‘ain’t moving’ to make doubly sure of the distinction.

But affect v effect is a little tougher on that score. I tried gamely to seal the ‘effect as noun’ distinction by urging them to think of ‘special effects’, but it didn’t really seem to do the trick. And the fact that ‘affected’ is also a fairly commonly used adjective only served to cloud an already foggy issue.

Then a few weeks ago, I came across a possible solution, in the form of a huge black bird.

A raven

RAVEN (Remember Affect Verb Effect Noun) or CROW (Can't Remember Obvious Word)?

Raven Mad

A few weeks back, I spotted that someone I follow on Twitter who regularly posts business writing tips (Clare Lynch – @goodcopybadcopy) had included one that made me sit up and take notice.

It was, simply: RAVEN.

Remember: Affect Verb Effect Noun.

That’s pretty good, I thought.

And then, shortly afterwards I thought: “But what if you can’t remember ‘Raven’? How helpful would it be then? What if you were suddenly hit by big black bird block, and found yourself with a CROW instead?

Can’t Remember Obvious Word.

And even those of you blessed with a visual memory, can you honestly say that you can truly distinguish between a raven and a crow, even in your mind’s eye?

On balance, I decided that although the RAVEN was good, I needed more. There had to be more associations, an extra layer that would secure the bird in my memory and convince me that the mnemonic would work for the sometimes verbally challenged folk out there.

And then it hit me.

Edgar Allan Poe

A sudden flashback to my student days, at Warwick University, and a book I found in the library that utterly fascinated me. It was by Edgar Allan Poe, and explained in detail how he had written his famous poem, ‘The Raven’, and why he had chosen the words he had at each stage of its progress.

So for me, ‘The Raven’ is forever associated with Edgar Allan Poe.

And then I spotted it.

Edgar Allan Poe has the same initial letters as the Effect Affect Problem.

So when you think of the Effect Affect Problem, think of Edgar Allan Poe, which will lead you to The Raven, which will provide you with the memory jogging answer.

It might be a bit of a stretch, it might be a little contrived, it might complicate the issue even further.

But it might just work.

And if it does, if it helps one or two of those people out there who battle with the Effect Affect Problem on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis, it will all be worth it.

Because then they will enquire of me “Nevermore!”


4 thoughts on “Effect Affect Problems and Edgar Allan Poe

  1. I love this! I don’t have a problem with affect/effect but I could use this when people ask.

    I’m often asked about practise/practice, advise/advice and license/licence too. I guess people have problems with their verbs and nouns in general 🙂

  2. Thanks for your kind comments Elaine, and for being the very first person to post a comment on my site!

    Interesting that you should mention those others, as I have a slide in my effective writing training course that deals with those three specifically, and prophesy/prophecy too. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that American English ignores the verb/noun rule here and only allows ‘license’ and ‘practise’.

    I’m intending to share a few other punctuation and grammar tips on the site, so feel free to use/share those once you’re back teaching after all that exciting travelling you have planned. Can’t wait to read all about it!

    Thanks again.

  3. Please help me rid the World of the incorrect use of their/there/they’re and your/you’re….it has a terrible ‘effect’ on me :))

    Booma x

    • There, there Booma, there’s nothing more annoying, is there? You’re absolutely right and I can totally understand your annoyance and irritation.

      I’ll make it a priority, and as soon as I’ve expunged those cankerous miscreants from the face of the earth I will tackle the hideous monstrosity that is the apostrophe catastrophe.

      It’s heartening to know that there are other people who care about accurate writing. And nice of you to read, and to comment. Cheers!

      Gareth x

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