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Note to court: Effect is a noun; affect is a verb ... except when they're not


By Peter Hancock

By now, politicians and legal scholars of all stripes have found things they either love or hate in the lengthy school finance decision in the case of Gannon vs. Kansas. So at the risk of piling on, let me just add one of my own little pet peeves: the consistent misuse of the words "effect" and "affect."

By my count, there are no fewer than 19 instances of those words, or their derivatives, being misused in the document. That averages out to one instance every 13.2 pages. (The initial text version that I opened in the OpenOffice Writer program came out to 326 pages, but the official version posted on the court's website in .pdf format is 251 pages, plus appendices.)

I started noticing this within minutes of receiving the ruling on Jan. 11. But in the rush to get stories posted online, and later filed for the print edition, we all had bigger issues to deal with. And I'll admit, if anyone happened to read a few of those initial online posts before the editors had time to catch them, they would have found more than a couple sentences with missing words or syntax errors of my own making.

But let's be clear. This decision was written by not one, but three highly educated, veteran jurists who were aided by clerical staffs and who took more than four months to finish their writing.

So, to review our high school English lessons:

"Effect" is a noun. One thing has an effect on another thing. It is only used as a verb in the sense of bringing about the effect of something. The word "effectuate" also works in that sense, but only if you're not afraid of sounding pompous.

"Affect" is a verb: The Jayhawks' win over K-State last night affected the two teams' standings in the Big 12 Conference. There are rare cases when "affect" is used as a noun, such as when political scientists refer to a candidate's "political affect" — the ability to generate feelings or emotions, especially affection. Outside of academia, though, it probably should be avoided unless, again, you don't mind coming off as a snoot.

In the court's lengthy tome, however, the words seem to be used interchangeably, and almost always incorrectly. A few examples:

• "The staff and program cuts occasioned by reductions to the (base state aid per pupil) look to have effected all school districts." (Page 108.)

• "What the affect of this represented philosophical change in the (local option budget) is, what changes to state supplemental aid payments mean, and what the effect of reductions in the base student aid per pupil (BSAPP) is, all need to be considered." (Page 86)

I especially like that last one because it uses both words in one sentence, one incorrectly and one correctly.

There is one passage, though, where both words are used side-by-side, and it's hard to tell what either one of them means. Moreover, it appears to be a fairly important sentence:

• "The State of Kansas is hereby enjoined from performing the unconstitutional act of enacting any appropriation, or directing, modifying or canceling any transfer, or using any accounting mechanism or other practice that would, will, or may in due course, affect, effect, or fund less than the base student aid per pupil of $4492 ..." (Page 247)

Such errors can negatively affect the public's view of the court and the legitimacy of its opinions. We'll have to wait and see what effect, if any, it has on the Kansas Legislature.


Brad Greenwood 5 years, 5 months ago

I seriously doubt the bulk of the legislature read it at all. They just waited to be told what to think about it and fell "right" in line.

Brian Laird 5 years, 5 months ago

Given that legal issues often turn on the proper use of language, expecting that official documents from Kansas courts should uphold high standards of writing is hardly being a bully.

fearsadness14 5 years, 5 months ago

Two points to you, Peter. Also, two more points for the last sentence. I was ready for it but it still made me giggle.

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 5 months ago

John Bremner would be proud, Peter.

You need to be the JW copy editor. Perhaps you could effect some change. You would certainly affect the overall quality of JW copy, and that would be a positive effect on local new reporting.

oakfarm 5 years, 5 months ago

The description, "highly educated, veteran jurists" does not mean what you think it means. It just means that they went to school for a long time. Maybe when KU reduces the length of time it takes to earn a law degree jurists will learn to make fewer mistakes...or maybe more.

Steve Bunch 5 years, 5 months ago

Unfortunately, I've seen the same mistakes in memos from KU administrators and faculty members. Language is a blunt instrument in most people's hands.

afhlover 5 years, 5 months ago

I am glad to see I am not the only one in this world that this particular grammatical error drives nuts. I was an English teacher, but I cannot believe the people in high positions that do not have the basic fundamentals of English. However, the one that REALLY drives me insane is when people use "insure" instead of "ensure," which is the correct form most of the time. Every one has a pet peeve. Oh, yes, periods outside of quotation marks will practically send me into a seizure.

Steve Bunch 5 years, 5 months ago

Everyone, not every one. As for the quotation marks, that's the English style. In the U.S. we keep the punctuation within the quotation marks.

Jean Robart 5 years, 5 months ago

THANK YOU PFC! That one bugs me to no end.

Bradley Kemp 5 years, 5 months ago

I've known people who insisted that "data" be treated as a plural but that "database" be treated as a single word. These are conflicting positions because in American English, we make single-word compound nouns using singular head nouns. We have shoeboxes, for instance, not shoesboxes. We have toothbrushes, not teethbrushes. So if you insist on "data" as a plural, you have to accept "data base" as two words.

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 5 months ago

The use of "data" as a singular mass abstract noun has become standard. It has come to mean "a body of facts." But you can still use datum/data if you want.

We are Americans. If enough people make the same usage error, it becomes standard.

I try to put my punctuation inside the quotation marks, but I really do like the British way better. Anyone who writes code knows that things inside the quotes are literal and part of the quoted material, and those commas and periods and what not inside there just do not belong.

I also an fine with the use of "hopefully" as a sentence adverb.

Leslie Swearingen 5 years, 5 months ago

"We are Americans. If enough people make the same usage error, it becomes standard."

That could be a direct quote from "The Story of Ain't", by David Skinner. I just started reading it and read that yesterday.

It is about, "America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published", according to the blurb on the front. I am hazy about when to put things it quotes, do you do it with book titles, movies, etc. So far, it is a very interesting book.

Clovis Sangrail 5 years, 5 months ago

I get hazy on using quotes and commas for titles, but now with modern word processing, most of the time you can just cover your bases by using italics. Then you don't have to worry about where to put the comma.

In case anyone cares, the word "blurb" was coined by Gelett Burgess, who also gave us this -- I never saw a purple cow I never hope to see one; But I can tell you, anyhow, I'd rather see than be one!

It's a terribly slow day at work.

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