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Troublesome pairs

a or an

'a' precedes words that start with a consonant sound

a book
a historian
a hotel
a subject

'an' precedes words that start with a vowel sound

an elective
an honorary degree
an hour
an office

a or an before acronyms and initialisms

use 'a' or 'an' depending on whether the acronym/initialism begins with a consonant or vowel sound

a UNESCO plan
a GST amount
an ABC show
an ASIO initiative

affect or effect

affect (verb) meaning to act on, to influence or to make a show of

The heat affected the students' concentration.

effect (verb) meaning to make happen or accomplish

It is time to bring a plan into effect.

effect (noun) meaning a result or consequence

The effect of heat on the students' concentration was immense.

amount or number

amount refers to a quantity

An enormous amount of work had to be done before it was finished.

number refers to something that can be counted

Only a small number of people were available for work.

biannual or biennial

biannual meaning twice a year

biennial meaning every two years

bimonthly or semimonthly

bimonthly meaning every two months

semimonthly meaning twice a month

complement or compliment

complement meaning something that completes or makes perfect, the quantity or amount that completes anything

compliment meaning to express praise and admiration

dependant or dependent

dependant (noun) meaning someone who depends on another

dependent (adjective) meaning to depend on something for assistance/support

different from or different to

different from (not different to)

disinterested or uninterested

disinterested meaning free from bias, objective

uninterested meaning not interested

ensure or insure

ensure meaning to make certain

insure meaning to guarantee against risk

fewer or less

use fewer with a plural count noun (referring to numbers)

fewer positions
fewer words

use less with a singular mass noun (referring to quantity)

less money
less time

forego or forgo

forego meaning to go before

forgo meaning to go without

it's or its

it's is a contraction of 'it is'

It's time to update the website.

its is the possessive of 'it'

The faculty is updating its website.

labour or labor

the Australian Labor Party ('labour' in most other instances)

licence or license

licence (noun)

a copyright licence

license (verb)

licensed to sell insurance

drivers licence

no apostrophe

practice or practise

practice (noun)

it is good practice

practise (verb)

to practise law

principal or principle

principal (adjective) meaning first in importance

The principal reason for studying law is to help people.

principal (noun) meaning most important/senior person in an organisation/group

The principal at the local high school has resigned.

principle (noun) meaning a standard of conduct

Jenny has good principles.

stationary or stationery

stationary (adjective) meaning not moving, standing still

stationery (noun) meaning writing materials

than or then

don't use 'then' when 'than' should be used: 'than' is used to compare

Building 1 is bigger than Building 6.

that or which

'that' defines, 'which' informs

This is the house that Jack built.

This house, which Jack built, is falling down.

who or whom

use 'who' if the clause beginning 'who' or 'whom' can turn into 'he', 'she' or 'they'

use 'whom' if it becomes 'him', 'her' or 'them'

you're or your

you're is a contraction of 'you are'

your is belonging to you

You're wonderful.

I like your shoes.