December 13, 2004

Opening for a copy editor at the Associated Press

Emma Ross had an article on the AP wire Saturday about the nature and effects of dioxins. One of her editors did her a disservice by sending it out under the headline "What Are Dioxins and What Is Their Affect?" It ran that way in the Miami Herald, the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer, Newsday, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and for all I know in many other papers.

That should have been "What Is Their Effect?" As written, the headline seems to ask about dioxins' emotional state rather than about their medical consequence.

At least that's what the norms of contemporary standard English say, according to the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Affect and effect are sometimes confused, but before you can sort them out, you must sort out the two words spelled affect. One means “to put on a false show of,” as in She affected a British accent. The other can be both a noun and a verb. The noun meaning “emotion” is a technical term from psychology that sometimes shows up in general writing, as in this quote from a Norman Mailer piece about the Gulf War: “Of course, the soldiers seen on television had been carefully chosen for blandness of affect.” In its far more common role as a verb, affect usually means “to influence,” as in The Surgeon General’s report outlined how smoking affects health.

 Effect can also serve as a noun or a verb. The noun means “a result.” Thus if you affect something, you are likely to see an effect of some kind, and from this may arise some of the confusion. As a verb, effect means “to bring about or execute.” Thus, using effect in the sentence The measures have been designed to effect savings implies that the measures will cause new savings to come about. But using affect in the very similar sentence These measures may affect savings could just as easily imply that the measures may reduce savings that have already been realized.

So the AP headline tries to use affect as a noun to mean "result" or "consequence". This is simultaneously a spelling error and a malapropism. It's an easy mistake to make, because the noun effect is pronounced with final stress and a reduced initial vowel, homophonous for many speakers with the verb affect (though with not the noun affect, which is pronounced with initial stress). The headline writer may have been further confused by the fact that the second sentence of Ross' article reads "This is what dioxins are and how they affect human beings".

The mistake is not only an easy one, but also a common one. The sequence "their affect" now has 398,000 web hits on Google, and when I check the first 40 current hits, I find that 39 of them are mistaken usages that should have been effect. So is this really a mistake? Hasn't Norma Loquendi spoken, and told the American Heritage Book of English Usage to sit down and shut up?

Well, it's a little more complicated than that. The phrase "their effect" has 1,390,000 ghits, so really what we've learned is that writers on the web use affect for effect about 1/3 of the time in the context "their ___', and that the "true" noun affect is so rare that it's outnumbered roughly 30 to 1 by these "mistakes". And in some contexts, the rate of "mistaken" substitution is much lower than one in three: "the affects" is about 79 times rarer than "the effects" (252K to 20.6M ghits).

The standard usages in this area are difficult to keep straight, and I suspect that the norms will not be maintained much longer, given that headline writers at the AP are abandoning ship, and are not being corrected by editors at papers like Newsday and the Miami Herald. All the same, violations of these norms will continue to be scorned by those who understand the old standards and try to maintain them. So as a public service, I'll try to explain those standards in terms of their history.

First, let's recap what's supposed to be correct, and why.

The verb affect most commonly means "to have an influence on or effect a change in". But there's no standard nominal form of affect with a corresponding meaning. Instead, affect as a noun means "feeling or emotion, especially as manifested by facial expression or body language", corresponding to the verbal sense "to act on the emotions of; touch or move".

On the other side, effect as a verb means "to bring into existence" or "to produce as a result", and it does have a corresponding noun form meaning "something brought about by a cause or agent; a result".

Is that perfectly clear? I didn't think so.

How did this mess come into existence? Well, it starts with a simple spatial distinction, basically to and fro, towards vs. away from. More exactly, Latin ad "to, towards" vs. Latin ex "out from the interior of". These Latin prepositions combined with the verb facere "do, make", to create the compound verbs afficere and efficere.

The Romans took afficere to mean "to do something to one, i. e. to exert an influence on body or mind, so that it is brought into such or such a state". So to + do = "do to". Fair enough. Lewis and Short note that the "influence" in question is "of the body rarely" and "more freq. of the mind".

The Romans took efficere to mean "to make out, work out; hence, to bring to pass, to effect, execute, complete, accomplish, make, form". So out (of) + make = "make out (of)", with "out" here having something like the sense it has in English outcome. Again, fair enough.

The past participles affectus and effectus got borrowed into English (perhaps with passage through French) as affect and effect. And the core meanings of the verbal forms are still close to the Latin originals: affect is "to have an influence on or effect a change in" -- still basically "do to"; effect is "to bring into existence" or "to produce as a result" -- still recognizably "make out (of)".

However, while the English verb affect has lost the Romans' preference for influences on body instead of mind, the noun affect has largely kept it, from Chaucer's time to the present:

c1374 CHAUCER Troylus III. 1342 And therto dronken had as hotte and stronge As Cresus did, for his affectes wronge.
1533 TINDALE Supper of the Lord Wks. III. 266 God is searcher of heart and reins, thoughts and affects.
1626 BACON Sylva §97 The affects and Passions of the Heart and Spirits, are notably disclosed by the Pulse.
1894 W. JAMES Coll. Ess. & Rev. (1920) 358 We may also feel a general seizure of excitement, which Wundt, Lehmann, and other German writers call an Affect, and which is what I have all along meant by an emotion.
1923 Wkly. Westm. Gaz. 24 Mar. 181 Their psychic lives are overfull of complexes, levels and affects.

In fact, it seems that this preference has gradually strengthened into an exclusivity. The OED gives as senses 5. "[T]he way in which a thing is physically affected or disposed; especially the actual state or disposition of the body" and 6. "esp. [a] state of body opposed to the normal; indisposition, distemper, malady, disease; ‘affection’", but the most recent cited examples of these senses are from 1679:

1563 T. GALE Antidot. II. 9 Very precious in burnings and scaldings and lyke affectes.
1616 SURFLET & MARKH. Countrey Farme 245 It is of great vse for the affects of the lungs.
1679 tr. Willis's Pharm. Ration. in Blount Nat. Hist. (1693) 112 Who presently after drinking Coffee became worse as to those Affects.

And even these (in my opinion obsolete) uses don't cover the offending AP headline "What Are Dioxins and What Is Their Affect?", where affect obviously means something like "consequence(s)" or "result", i.e. effect.

In the body of the AP dioxin article, Ross uses affect-the-verb or effect-the-noun four times, all of them correct according to the standards we've described:

This is what dioxins are and how they affect human beings:

Most of what's known about the health effects of acute doses comes from studies on animals.

Other effects from high dioxin doses in humans include decreased liver function, an enlarged liver and slight increase in blood fats, though both effects tend to be mild and short-lived.

So I bet that Ross knows the standard norms in this case, and is feeling mortified by the headlines under which her piece appeared.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 13, 2004 12:23 AM