Commonly confused words: affect, effect and impact

A new feature for my blog:  for my first post in every month, I’ll look at some commonly confused words.  This month, with the first bushfire warnings being broadcast, I’m looking at impact, affect and effect.

Impact is overused these days; my theory is that this is because people are not confident in using effect and affect and thus look for another word instead. This is a shame, because while impact can mean affect (particularly for abstract concepts, such as ideas), most of its meanings have an element of force within them: impact means to strike with force (like a meteorite hitting the Earth’s surface, or a fist hitting someone’s head). Impacted (as people’s teeth sometimes are) means wedged in or packed in.  When bushfire warnings proclaim that communities may be ‘impacted by smoke or embers’, it just sounds absurd to me: smoke can’t really hit anything.

Evidence of an impact: a meteorite crater

If I had the chance to edit bushfire warnings, I’d change ‘impacted by smoke’ to ‘affected by smoke’, because that it what is meant.

Affected or impacted by smoke?

What then is the difference between effect and affect? Affect is nearly always used as a verb (unless you are writing textbooks or academic articles about psychology, in which case you need to learn its specialist meaning in that field; the rest of us don’t need to worry). In practice, this means that affect will very often have an –ing or –ed ending (those communities in danger from fires may be affected by smoke).  Effect is mostly used as a noun: this means it will very often follow the words a, an or theThe effects of fires can be catastrophic.

Effect is occasionally used as verb, where its meaning is different; it means to carry out or to put into operation. For example, The cost-savings will be effected through budget cuts in every department.  This use is not common, and does tend to make the user sound very bureaucratic and possibly even pompous, so again, it’s not a usage of the word that most of us need to worry about.

Be bold, and use both effect and affect with confidence – and save impact for when something really does strike hard.

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Photos: meteorite crater by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash; bushfire smoke at Healesville from Nutter

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