Antibodies play an essential role in host defence against pathogens by recognizing microorganisms or infected cells. Although preventing pathogen entry is one potential mechanism of protection, antibodies can control and eradicate infections through a variety of other mechanisms. In addition to binding and directly neutralizing pathogens, antibodies drive the clearance of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites via their interaction with the innate and adaptive immune systems, leveraging a remarkable diversity of antimicrobial processes locked within our immune system. Specifically, antibodies collaboratively form immune complexes that drive sequestration and uptake of pathogens, clear toxins, eliminate infected cells, increase antigen presentation and regulate inflammation. The diverse effector functions that are deployed by antibodies are dynamically regulated via differential modification of the antibody constant domain, which provides specific instructions to the immune system. Here, we review mechanisms by which antibody effector functions contribute to the balance between microbial clearance and pathology and discuss tractable lessons that may guide rational vaccine and therapeutic design to target gaps in our infectious disease armamentarium.