March 15, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: sympathy or empathy & affect or effect

Posted in affect/effect, sympathy/empathy at 9:26 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Sympathy or empathy

This has been an incredibly sad week in Pittsburgh, and especially at the University of Pittsburgh; a mentally ill man shot and killed a young therapist and wounded many others at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Everyone is saddened and somewhat in shock that something like this could happen here.

Listening to the news and coverage of the event, it became clear that many people view ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as synonyms—they are not. ‘Sympathy’ is compassion for another person, feeling sad for or regretting the situation a person is in. ‘Empathy’ involves feeling or experiencing another’s emotions as your own.

I sympathize with his misfortune; I don’t know how he is going to rebuild his home.

I  can empathize with her reticence; it is really hard to start over.

With ‘sympathy,’ you feel sorry for another person; with ‘empathy,’  you are as one with the other person and are sharing the other person’s feelings.

Finally, ‘sympathies’ as in the expression ‘We send our sympathies to the families,’ refers to feelings of compassion. There is no plural form of empathy, and we would never say, as our mayor recently did, ‘We send our empathies to the families.’ Never.

Tip 2: Affect or effect

A reader asks:

I know you’ve done it before, but could you go over the difference between affect and effect again? I was reviewing someone’s proposal and I couldn’t decide if ‘effect’ was used correctly or not.

This is certainly worth a review since confusing the two words is such a common mistake. Let’s start with their most common meanings and uses: ‘affect’ is usually used as a verb and means ‘to change or influence.”

In the United States, more than 2.5 million American women have been affected by breast cancer.

‘Effect’ is usually used as a noun and means ‘result or consequence.’

It is necessary to determine the treatment’s effect on the patient’s subsequent quality of life.

I’m tempted to stop here. These are the ways the words are used for the most part,  and this is where the mistakes are usually made. But, I guess I should give you the whole story. ‘Affect’ is used in psychiatry and psychology as a noun. It is pronounced somewhat differently because the emphasis is on the first rather than the second syllable. It means ‘feeling or emotion.’

Her affect seems unusually flat—as if she is an outside observer and not a participant.

And not to be outdone, ‘effect,’ while usually a noun, can occasionally be a verb. As a verb, it always takes an object, and it means ‘to bring about or accomplish.’

By effecting changes in the law, they were able to circumvent the traditional outcome.

So that’s the whole story (or at least almost all of it).  But you will be okay if you remember that ‘effect’ is usually a noun, and ‘affect’ is usually a verb. Okay?



  1. Anonymous said,

    “Let’s start with their most common meanings and uses: ‘affect’ is usually used a verb and means ‘to change or influence.””

    Missing an “as.”

  2. dlseltzer said,

    Thank you! I missed that.

  3. kelsey said,

    I love this blog! I run an SAT prep blog and I posted a link here, so my readers could use you as a grammar resource. Admittedly, there are only about five of them right now, but you’re still amazing! 🙂

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