Homophone trouble as a parable of learning

Klein Bottle: obliquity unbounded. Image cc Wikimedia Commons

This one is quite oblique, so if you’re not patient or inquisitive or morbidly curious, this one may not be for you. 

Here’s the backstory. Students in my section of “Living The Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds” are completing their inquiry projects. I’ve been thinking a lot, and emailing a few folks with some frequency, about their drafts. I’ve been thinking about writing and language and how the inquiry’s focus and articulation chart a course for the creator. Along the way, I had the opportunity to interact with one of the students about one of the most difficult homophone (or near-homophone) combos of all: “affect” and “effect.” My email turned into something like one of Vi Hart’s famous “math doodles” (or it seemed so to me). By the end, it felt as if I’d arrived at something near the core of teaching and learning.

I’m confident that what follows is not original with me. The ending, though, is where I think there may be a small contribution. It’s the paragraph that begins “now the interesting thing educationally….”

Unfortunately, the contribution needs to have the homophone discussion for context.

That small contribution draws on Bruner’s “The Will To Learn” as well as Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the latter of which I am re-reading, as I do about every two years. The whole idea is to find the place where one must stand to start building. The will to learn. The idea or intuition of “quality” that precedes analysis or even conscious experience. The place that makes all possible, and without which we try to run our marathons on broken legs.


Now for the homophone affect-effect problem. You’ve actually got it wrong in your sentence (sorry). Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the differences:affect n. means “emotion.” Example: I could not read his affect from his face.
affect v. means “to adopt in a fake or pretentious way.” Example: She affects a scholarly air.
But now it gets harder.
affected v. *past tense* means “had an effect on” and is often used with the passive voice. (English is a hard language for these and many other reasons. I blame humanity.) Example: “Computing was affected for the better by Engelbart.” It’s a vague verb so I usually try to find a different way to put it. (My typical workaround for linguistic indecision.)
affected adj. means “fake.” Example: He had a very affected manner of speaking.

effect n. means “impact.” An effect is the thing that results from a cause, the thing the cause brings into being. Example: “Engelbart had a great effect on civilization, particularly with regard to computing.”
effect v. means “to bring into being.” Example: “Engelbart effected great change in society.” A vague sentence and not very useful for that reason, but the word is correct. :)

So: “The weather affects my mood” and “the weather has an effect on my mood” mean roughly the same thing. “I affect a moody disposition when it rains” means “I put on, or fake, a moody disposition when it rains.” “The weather effects my mood” means “the weather brings my mood into being,” which is not the same thing as “the weather changes my mood.”

Now the interesting thing educationally, for me, is that a) you knew there was a difference and b) you were aware that you may not have understood the difference. The fact that you used “affect” incorrectly is of secondary importance. If those first two conditions didn’t obtain, the incorrect usage would be hard or impossible to address. For decades I have continued to work on instilling the metacognitive loop of 1) and 2) in students without having that loop paralyze their writing. It’s no good trying to get one’s messy thoughts into a rough draft if one gets blocked by linguistic uncertainty. The key is to write and keep writing, then go back and revise later. Eventually one becomes more fluent and can therefore get a lot of this stuff right on the fly, but even then careful proofreading is helpful. I still get my its and it’s wrong in rough drafts, just because I’m going quickly. Same for typos, etc.

Apostrophes? Don’t get me started…. I was laughing with an English friend in Herefordshire several years ago about a sign he saw regarding “Christma’s toys.”

In the end, it’s all conventions, but the conventions matter even though they’re arbitrary. They represent a set of agreements. It’s also kind of fun, in a geeky way, to get it right and to know why–like being able to play a favorite lick on one’s guitar, or being able to draw a recognizable face, or being able to tell a joke well.

Sorry to natter on at such length, but I thought it might be fun to stroll along and think aloud.

All best,
Dr. C.

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