James J. Kilpatrick

Hector had just won first prize for good sportsmanship at the Athens games. His envious cousin said, "I hope it doesn't effect his already swelled head." A neighbor added, "Well, it's bound to have some affect upon him."

Manifestly, they both had the wrong verb. It happens all the time. The two spectators were hooked on the horns of a homophone, a pestiferous critter easily identified by its muddy camouflage. For the record, a homophone is one of two or more words that (1) sound more or less alike, (2) are spelled differently and (3) have different meanings. The English language suffers from hundreds of them. "Affect" and "effect" are merely among the most popular.

For real-world examples: Mel Stottlemyre, the Yankees' pitching coach, once gave an interview to The Associated Press. He said that owner George Steinbrenner's second-guessing has had a "cumulative affect" over the years. Covering a different pastime, a reporter for the Amherst, (N.Y.) Bee quoted a town supervisor on the possible construction of a casino: "It could effect traffic and it could effect employment." Affect? Effect?

They both had it wrong. These hoary disturbers of the peace have been confounding writers for centuries. "Affect" dates at least from 1494, "effect" from 1652. The latter functions regularly as both verb and noun: If we effect (i.e., bring about) a change in water rights, it likely will affect (i.e., influence) farm income. By uncertain contrast, although "affect" has only a highly specialized meaning as a noun -- an affect, I think, involves the study of emotions -- it works overtime as a verb.

If there is a mnemonic device to help a writer in getting these trickers straight, I haven't yet come across it. My only suggestion is never to hire either "affect" or "effect" without first checking its pedigree. Otherwise one is likely to write, as a Seattle sportswriter once wrote, that a Parisian who won the Tour de France "effected" an air of superiority. The fellow was just being French.

Many others homophones appear as widely. Several years ago, for example, a columnist in Denver remarked upon a coming theatrical attraction. He wrote: "There's no doubt that aligning itself with the Royal Shakespeare Company gives the Denver Center a certain amount of cache."

The columnist wasn't commenting upon the center's budget. He was hoisting himself on the petar of homophonic usage. Petars are devilish critters. The things live underground like sleeping moles, they lie in a comb like sulking wasps, or they sleep in caves like hibernating bares -- bears, that is.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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