Word Confusion: Principal versus Principle

Posted July 10, 2014 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

This one is one of my bugaboos, and the easiest way to distinguish between principal and principle is to remember that principal (think pal) is generally a person while principle is generally a rule. Do keep in mind the generally as there are exceptions.

I am always getting principal vs. principle confused, and I do try to uphold my principles by telling you which ones I screw up myself, it’s only fair.

There’s another variation on principle which is the scientific rule. One rule I find useful is the one which says that by working up the explanations and definitions for these Word Confusions helps my brain hold onto them better.

Most of us know principal from our student days — and not wanting to end up in his or her office. Nowadays, many of us are our own principals in that we write our own posts for our blogs or write books or…

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Principal Principle
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: principle

Image courtesy of Tom Parker, Photographer (NARA record: 4682167) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Taken November 25, 1942, this is John Bledsoe, Jr., a high school principal, his secretary, Stella Nawa, and two school students: Agnes Yayosho and George Hanzawa at the Rohwer Relocation Center in McGehee, Arkansas during World War II.

Image courtesy of Orion 8 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

This animated GIF of a VOR (VHF Omni Directional Radio Range) demonstrates how planes use this scientific principle to help aircraft find their position and stay on course.

Part of Grammar:
Adjective, Noun Noun
Most important
Person in charge

First in order of importance


[Money] Denoting an original sum invested or lent

Person with the highest authority or most important position in an organization, institution, or group

Head of a school, college, or other educational institution

Leading performer in a concert, play, ballet, or opera

[Music] Leading player in each section of an orchestra

Sum or money invested or lent on which interest is paid

A person for whom another acts as an agent or representative

[Law] Person directly responsible for a crime

[Historical] Each of the combatants in a duel

Main rafter supporting purlins

Organ stop sounding a main register of open flue pipes typically an octave above the diapason

Basis for conduct

Fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning

A general scientific theorem or law
[Medicine] A basic truth, law, or assumption

A rule or law concerning the functioning of natural phenomena or mechanical processes

One of the elements composing a chemical compound, especially one that gives some special quality or effect

The essential ingredient in a drug

The principal amount of your investment is intact.

Being sent to the principal’s office can be scary.

He is acting for his principals.

He is acting on his principles.

He is a principled man.

The man is simply without principles!

In principle, that is how it should be done.

He refused, on principle, to pay the fine.

Noun: principalship, underprincipal
History of the Word:
Middle English via Old French from the Latin principalis meaning first or original, which is from princeps, princip- meaning first, chief. Late Middle English is from Old French, from the Latin principium meaning source with principia (the plural) meaning foundations, which is from princeps, from princip- meaning first, chief.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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