Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 105: On Principle

This week, we're taking a look at a pair of homophones. You may recall that homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things. In episode 11, A Triple Threat, we looked at a trio of homophones: palate, palette and pallet. But today, we're looking at just two: principal and principle.

Let's begin with principal. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, principal can be an adjective meaning "most important; main." For example:

Visiting the Museum of Modern Art was my principal reason for going to New York.

Principal can also be used as a noun. It can mean several things. One, it can mean the most important person in an organization or group. Along similar lines, it can mean the primary character or actor in a film, play or other production.

The principal male character in the film Star Wars is Luke Skywalker.

A principal can be the head of a school or college.

We asked Mr. Cahill, the school's principal, if we could start a film club.

Principal is also a sum of money lent or invested, on which interest is paid.

Rather than buy stocks, I think I'll just pay down the principal on my home mortgage.

Now on to principle. This word is a noun, and it means a truth or general law that is used as a basis for a theory or system of belief.

Most modern Western nations are governed by the principles of democracy.

As a plural noun, principles, it can mean the rules or beliefs governing one's personal behavior.

When Paul found the bag of cash, his principles led him to alert the authorities.

A principle is also a general scientific theorem or natural law.

Sir Isaac Newton discovered the principle of gravity while thinking beneath an apple tree in his garden.

So how did we get to have these two distinct yet eerily similar words? According to Webster's New World College Dictionary, both words share a common Latin root—princeps—which means "first, chief, prince." In fact, we do get the word prince from this same root.

However, The Oxford Dictionary of Current English tells us that down the years, derivations of the Latin word princeps spawned the Latin word principalis meaning "first or original" and principium, which means "source." These words continued to evolve in Old and Middle French, ultimately yielding the distinct English words principal and principle, respectively.

But unless your brain is wired to think in Latin roots—and some people's are—there are easier ways to keep these words separated.

Fowler's Modern English Usage says that principal can be used as an adjective. It can also be used as a noun.

Adjective: Jason Isaacs played the principal male role in the made-for-TV movie The State Within.
Noun: The principal of the school is Mr. Cahill.

Fowler's then says that principle is only used as a noun.

Noun: The essence of weightlifting really boils down to the principle of gravity.
Noun: The lawyer was never one to compromise his principles.

There are a couple of ways we can remember to distinguish principal and principle. Principal can be used as a noun or adjective, and it contains the letter A, as in adjective. Principle does not contain the letter A and cannot be used as an adjective.

Also, principal means "first, primary, or most important." It contains the letter A which is the first letter of the alphabet. So that can help us remember principal means first.

There's also a mnemonic device that works particularly well for people who attend or once attended a school or college governed by a principal (it doesn't really work for those governed by a dean or head teacher). The mnemonic maintains that one's principal is one's pal; the word principal ends in P-A-L, et voilà. We're not sure that one is very useful.

But speaking of education, something amusing about Fowler's Modern English Usage is that it says, "Confusion of [principal and principle] betrays inadequate instruction at an early age." It's kind of a funny line, but it doesn't mean that if we still get the two words confused, we can blame our former teachers. Or former principals.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Webster's New World College Dictionary; Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield

Music: "Principal's Office" by Young MC; "Kiss" by Prince; "The Pleasure Principle" by Janet Jackson

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