I do not know the history of the words affect and effect. I know their use in English, with the words being verbs and nouns respectively, but as a point of curiosity and enthusiasm, I wonder if there is a need to have separate words at all? Is there ever a case where there is a sentence that would be ambiguous if the wrong word was used? For example, consider the following sentences:

I am happy for you too.

I am happy for you two.

(I believe a comma might be needed in the first sentence, but bear with me)

These sentences have different meanings. The first states that the speaker is happy for the listen as well. The second states that the reader is happy for the listener and another individual. It is important, then for English to have different words for these two meanings. Considering affect and effect, is there ever a case where we could have an ambiguous sentence like this? Or could we instead drop either affect or effect and use the remaining word exclusively?

As an aside: I understand that English is a language birthed from many other languages, and as a result contains many duplicates of words. For example (this is my understanding), cow and beef were at one point essentially the same, but the words are rooted from the languages that were used by those who raised the cattle (Germanic, cow) and those who consumed the meat (French, beef).

  • 1
    You haven't covered all the different meanings. Even forgetting about homophonous two, in normal conversational contexts, I am happy for you too could mean I too am happy for you - I am another one [of those people who are happy for you], as opposed to You are another one [of those people who I am happy for]. Jun 24, 2019 at 16:42
  • 2
    One fundamental problem with this type of question is they fail to consider: who do you imagine would do the "dropping" of the word? There is no Academy of the English Language. There is no single "official" dictionary. How do you get a directive out to 1.5 billion people "Okay, everyone, it's no longer affect and effect, just use effect"? Jun 24, 2019 at 16:43
  • 3
    Because affect / effect are often indistinguishable in speech, there's potential ambiguity in, for example, He cannot affect / effect the plan. Where affect would mean he's unable to alter the plan, but (uncommon, but grammatically fine) effect would mean he's unable to implement the plan. Jun 24, 2019 at 16:46
  • 2
    I can't answer your question, because I don't really understand what you're asking. There's potential ambiguity in the spoken example I gave, but that doesn't exist in the written version. And ambiguity can involve different possible meanings of the same word, as well as different words themselves (homophones). I don't know what you're focusing on, if anything. Jun 24, 2019 at 16:55
  • 2
    I was half expecting some native Francophone to comment Ca c'est vachement fou, FF! Jun 24, 2019 at 17:25

1 Answer 1


Is there ever a case where there is a sentence that would be ambiguous if the wrong word was used?


Both words can be verbs*: "I want to affect/effect change."

Both words can be nouns*: "The affect/effect is pronounced."

is [there] a need to have separate words at all?

Probably not. English is full of homonyms and in some cases multiple meanings are grammatical.

I addressed the letter -> Did I put an address on it, or did I give attention to its contents?

The bat flew out of his hands -> A baseball bat, or an animal?

A huge crane fell into the water -> The bird, or the machine?

If we're able to deal with these ambiguities, we could probably live with a single spelling for affect/effect.

* The verbal form of effect is less common than the nominal, and the nominal form of affect is even less common, but they do, or did, exist.

  • Thank you for providing a helpful and unpatronizing answer! Jun 24, 2019 at 17:03
  • 2
    The full OED has about a dozen different definitions for affect as a noun. All are flagged obsolete except I-5-b (marked as specific to Psychology and Psychiatry) A feeling or subjective experience accompanying a thought or action or occurring in response to a stimulus. And to be honest, until I just consulted the OED, I didn't know that even that one was still considered "current". For almost all people who even know there are two words/spellings, the difference is a matter of verb and noun usages. Jun 24, 2019 at 17:11
  • 1
    I don't see the sentence being ambiguous on its own if the wrong word was used. To me, ambiguity suggests that the sentence could mean two or more things in its current form, and which thing it means is difficult to tell. I see the sentence meaning something different if the wrong word is used: "The affect is pronounced" means that the elicited emotional response is pronounced; "the effect is pronounced" means that whatever is brought about by the cause is pronounced. The only ambiguity would be in a situation where the context suggested that the main meaning was improbable. Jun 24, 2019 at 17:30
  • 2
    ...-do- exist. All four affect/effect x noun/verb are in current usage. Yes, the affect-noun and effect-verb aren't the primary ones by a long shot but are definitely quite current in use.
    – Mitch
    Jun 24, 2019 at 18:26
  • 1
    Answers are considered good on ELU when they contain reasonable supporting evidence. Without FumbleFingers' added research, this answer could mislead someone into thinking that 'affect' is used as a noun just as often as 'effect', and that 'The affect is pronounced' is a commonly encountered sentence. Jun 24, 2019 at 18:53

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.