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A Word, Please: An effort to effect better writing

In a recent column, I made the case for resolving to learn more about language and grammar in the new year. The response has been overwhelming: thousands upon thousands of emails pouring into my inbox cheering on my new movement and seeking out advice on how to polish one's grammar skills to perfection.

No, not really. Not even close, in fact. As you can guess, people who want to learn more about language don't need a nudge from me. And people with other priorities wouldn't listen to little old me, anyway.

So how about just one quick primer on a very fundamental usage point that ranks high on every literate person's must-know list — an easy yet crucial lesson that could improve anyone's writing in the new year: the difference between "affect" and "effect"?

I know what some of you are thinking: "I already know 'affect' from 'effect.' Goodbye."

Wait. Before you go: Did you know that sometimes "affect" is a noun and sometimes "effect" is a verb? If not, stick around. There's something here for you, too.

But first, the basics: "Affect" is usually a verb. "Effect" is usually a noun. If you have trouble keeping them straight, that's the most important thing to know.

In "Caffeine affects me," it's spelled with an A because it's the verb in the clause — the action taking place in the sentence. Caffeine is the subject. Affects is the verb.

In "Caffeine has an effect on me," it begins with an E because it's a noun. The verb in this sentence is "has," its subject is "caffeine" and "effect" is the object of the verb. That's something nouns do: serve as objects.

One way to remember this is to think of the term "side effect," then note that the E in "side" prompts you to begin the next word with another E: effect.

And that, in a nutshell, is how to avoid the most common errors with "affect" and "effect": just remember that the one that starts with E is a noun and the one that starts with A is a verb.

But for you advanced word nerds, there's a twist: A version of the word "effect" is, in fact, a verb. And a version of the word "affect" is a noun. That's right, the traditional distinction doesn't always apply.

Merriam-Webster's includes this definition: "effect: transitive verb … to bring about; make happen; cause or accomplish: 'effect a cure for a disease'; 'effect a change in policy.'"

If you've ever heard anyone say "to effect positive change," this is the word they were using. They were talking about bringing about change. Bringing it into existence.

The alternative, when you think about it, is nonsensical: "To affect positive change" would basically mean to change positive change. Perhaps that would change it into negative change. We can't be sure.

So to bring something about, you want the E spelling.

As for the "affect" that's a noun, well, that's even rarer. An affect is an outward expression of mood or demeanor. For example, you might say that a psychiatric patient exhibited a hostile affect.

Here's Merriam-Webster's: "affect, noun. The conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes; also: a set of observable manifestations of a subjectively experienced emotion: 'patients … showed perfectly normal reactions and affects.'"

Unless you're in the mental health field, the chances you'll ever use that noun are slim. But anyone might need to talk about "effecting positive change."

But even people who would never use those less common forms benefit from understanding the basics: "affect" is a verb, "effect" is a noun, and writing just a little bit better in the year to come is as easy as that.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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