Grammar Boot Camp Part V: Affect or Effect? Commonly Confused Words

Snarky_affecteffectWhat’s the difference between “affect” and “effect?” Should it be “illicit” or “elicit?” Today’s grammar boot camp session will focus on such ‘almost’ homophones, words that sound quite similar phonetically yet have very different uses. We all get these words easily confused–so pay attention! Make sure your next essay uses the proper forms of the following commonly confused terms.


Affect or Effect?

As the Affect v. Effect Raven declares, affect is (most often) a verb and effect is (most often) a noun. This is the simplest distinction, and easiest to remember. To affect something is to make a difference, to impact in some capacity, and/or to touch the feelings of someone or move him/her emotionally. Here are some example sentences of affect used as a verb:

  • Finals week affected George’s sleep cycle quite negatively.
  • The opera singers will most certainly affect their audience with their moving Easter demonstration.

There is a second definition of the verb affect. To affect something is also to pretend to have or feel something, or to use, wear, or assume something, as in these example sentences:

  • My friends often affect British accents in order to sound pretentious.
  • The employer looked down upon those who affected sincerity during the interview process.

Note: Affect can also (rarely) be a noun! As a noun, affect signifies emotion or desire which influences a certain behavior or action. (Consider the noun affection!) An example sentence: “He showed no affect or response to stimulus.”

Elicit v. Illicit

Quite simply, elicit is a verb, and illicit an adjective. Are you starting to notice a trend yet? That’s right! Often the major distinction between these homophones are their roles played in sentences. To elicit something is to bring it about, to draw out from someone in reaction to one’s actions or questions. Consider the following sentences:

  • The jury’s verdict, established on archaic terms, elicited outrage from a progressive populace.
  • The valedictorian’s speech elicited much laughter from the graduates.

Something which is illicit is forbidden, by laws, rules, or custom. Here are some examples:

  • The high school administration decided this was the year that it would crack down on illicit use of alcoholic substances amongst its underage students.
  • What do you consider to be more illicit in the context of political history: sending secret, treasonous correspondence, or publicly proclaiming wrongs?

Except v. Accept

In this pair, except can act as a preposition and a verb, while accept can only ever be a verb. As a preposition, except means “not including” or “other than:”

  • The students work every day except for Monday.
  • I have every season of The Walking Dead on DVD except for the current one.

As a verb, to except is to exclude or leave out.

  • Excepting a handful of sleepy teenagers, the movie theatre was empty.
  • She excepted from her essay any mention of the significant text.

To accept something is to consent to receive, agree to undertake, or regard favorably.

  • The University only accepted a few high school seniors from Brown High this year.
  • I heartily accept these conditions as outlined in the treatise.

Ensure, Insure

These words are tricky. Today many people use them interchangeably, but proper grammar dictates otherwise. To ensure something is to make certain that something shall occur or be the case, as in the following sentences:

  • The teacher ensured that her students were prepared for the SATs.
  • Mr. Brandeis would like to ensure that his daughter is adequately prepared for the summer camp.

Insure is only used in reference to financial insurance coverage or to the notion of protecting someone against something.

  • The changes to the constitution will insure against further unrest or juridical speculation.
  • This laptop should be insured for at least $2500.

Complement or Compliment?

Both complement and compliment act as the same parts of speech: nouns or verbs. This will make them tougher to distinguish, for here it comes down to definition. If something complements or is a complement, it completes or brings to perfection or wholeness.

  • The two were complements of each other: he was quite energetic and outgoing, while she tended to be more reserved.
  • Her navy blazer complemented her rust-orange dress.

To compliment someone is to express praise or admiration; a compliment is what we call this expression.

  • Adam complimented Susannah on her remarkable ability to resolve issues with diplomacy and courtesy.
  • My professor gave me quite the compliment when he told me my essay was of the graduate level.

Curious to see where all of these tricky words come from? Check out The Oxford English Dictionary, an incredible source which outlines the etymological progression of words from their first alleged conception in the English language to today’s usage.

Additional Reading:

Check out the previous posts in my six part “Grammar Boot Camp” series:

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she has completed a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture (“Shakespeare’s Written World: Letters in Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and King Lear”). Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford, and will be attending Boston University’s M.F.A. program in Creative Writing as a fiction writer next fall.

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