One way to make your writing easy to read is to avoid using words in ways that they aren’t typically used. Let’s think about the words in the following sentence:
- “The government effects the will of the people.”
What wrong with this sentence? It may seem as though “effects” is a typo that should really be written as “affects.” After all, we know that “affect” is a verb meaning “to have an effect on something” whereas “effect” is a noun meaning “something that has been caused or affected by something else.”
In reality, though, there isn’t an error in this sentence. Why? As if the “affect” vs. “effect” distinction wasn’t already hard enough for people to wrap their heads around, these words each have another definition. We generally think of “affect” being a verb, but it’s also a noun that means “emotion.” Although not many people use the word “affect” to refer to “emotion,” it’s actually a very common term in psychology. In addition, although we’re used to thinking of “effect” as a noun, it’s also a verb that means “to bring something about or to cause something to become a reality.” In the sentence above, then, the writer is saying that the government makes people’s wishes become a reality. As unrealistic as this sentence may seem, it is grammatically correct.
As you can see, just because a sentence is grammatical doesn’t mean that it’s easy to read. Just think about the fact that many people may struggle to understand the example sentence above but not have a problem with the following sentence: “The government has an effect on how people feel.” Why is this second sentence so much easier to understand? Because people are more familiar with the noun definition of “effect” than they are with the verb definition of this word. When people are more familiar with one definition of a word, they may automatically interpret the word in this way each time they encounter it, regardless of whether this is how the writer wanted them to interpret it.
A reader who comes across a word that you’ve used in an unfamiliar way may eventually figure out what you mean, but the time that they spend trying to figure out what you’re saying may frustrate them, and it may also make them forget some of the key points that they’ve already read. The last thing you want is for your reader to miss all of your great ideas because you described them in a confusing way.
Keep in mind that using words in uncommon ways isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, in some cases, uncommon definitions of words may be very familiar to people within specific fields and, therefore, appropriate to use. For example, we mentioned earlier that “affect” is frequently used as a noun in psychology. In most cases, though, sticking to common definitions and uses of words can help you and your reader out.
Have other questions about grammar or word usage? Leave us a note in our comments section below and we’ll do our best to incorporate your questions into one of our upcoming posts.
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