Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Accent Affect of Whining


Long ago and far away, I argued myself down from a B to a C grade in an English class by disputing the teacher's criticism of my use of the word oblivion. I'd read a story about the Beat Generation and noticed a photograph picturing one Kerouac-wannabe with "Blessed, Blessed Oblivion" tattooed on his bicep.

"One day we will have the blessed oblivion of peace," I wrote in an essay on US-USSR relations.

"No, no," the teacher said. "This is wrong. Our nation must always be prepared to defend itself against godless Communist aggression." She worried about Sputnik.

Words were playthings to me then, and I often tripped over my toys. I'd hop-scotched from Dick and Jane readers to Superman comic books and then jumped headfirst into the Hemingway and Faulkner on our family's bookshelf.

In my rush, I neglected the dictionary, which meant there would be big trouble when I wanted to convince people with my words. Like oblivion. You might say I was oblivious to grammar and syntax even though my vocabulary was expanding rapidly. But it was by sight rather than sound.

For example, even though I was still too young to drink and had no reason to complain, I said wine as "whine."

Even now, I still have an intermittent short-circuit between eye and brain. I see ancient. My mental ear hears accent. I chalk it up to gaps in my education. I've never met an archaeologist, and I'm the guy who mixed up blessed oblivion and atheist Commies.

My tin ear for homonyms—not that there's anything wrong with that—regularly got me into trouble. I once hurried into the school office with a letter to a scholastic organization. "Could you mail this for me?" I asked. Luckily the principal asked if I was sure I wanted to "except" the prize.

Obviously, my language universe was expanding but chaotic. Ask me to explain the situation, and I would've said it was "chow-autic," even if there hadn't been a big crowd at lunch.

I'm old enough now that I seldom embarrass myself. That's because I've worked hard on grammar and syntax as I've grown more accent. And I never order whine.

But I still have one bugaboo when I write. I stumble over affect and effect. Yes, I know there's a simple rule. Affect is influence, a verb. Effect is result, a noun.

Good enough, until I met my ration of crazy people. I began to read psychology in self-defense. I learned "affect" is a noun designating mood, which is generally good once you've got that PhD.

And I've never understood how affect became affection, a state of love. After all, there is no effection. Winning the affection of a woman would appear to be a perfect effection. It isn't. It's an effectuation.

To be accurate, it's actually an infatuation, and often something that'll give you a lot to wine about.

My confusion between the two words has reached the point that it was affecting, or effecting, my writing. I don't know which.

I tried searching word roots, looking for the elementary difference between the two, something to grasp so that the aftereffect would be effective use of both words. What I did learn is the two words are so slippery that even smart people have trouble with them.

I asked my wife, who is one of those people, how she decided which one was appropriate. "Oh," she said, "I just play it by nose."

Long after the teacher retired, Sputnik fell and broke up the USSR, I grew smart enough to approach the point in a sentence where I would be forced to choose between "affect" and "effect," stop, take a deep breath, and look up a synonym.

Words like accomplish, move, involve, consequence, cause, or symptom work fine.

I decided that was the smartest thing to do. Oh, I could have begun to lobby politicians to eliminate the words from the English language.

But I came to my senses. How's a little guy like me going to effect the government? Or is it affect?

The only thing I know for certain is that is "influence," and I don't have enough money to buy it.

Besides, I remember what happened to George Bernard Shaw, the English writer who obsessed about the oddities of English spelling. He proved fish could be spelled ghoti. I don't know if he was under the influence, but the effect—affect?—illustrated he had evolved into some sort of a linguistic lunatic.

He ended up leaving part of his estate to a project to revamp the English alphabet. The effort failed. You could look it up. It's accent history.

Wasted money. Now that's something to wine about.


  • I wrote this about five years ago, and it was published in The Writer's E-zineI remembered the essay a few days ago when a discussion about confusing words came up on a list server where I participate.

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