Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Principal Problem

Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she looks at the all-too-common confusion of principal and principle.

I've learned that I cannot expect my child's teachers to spell well. (That one of them cheerfully refuses to engage in self-flagellation over this moral failing still irks me, though.) But I did think that editors were people who could be relied upon to fear the discerning reader's scorn. I know that English spelling is a mess and that remembering the rules is easier for some than for others, but you'd think someone who was a weak speller but who worked with text every day would be aware of his or her particular weaknesses and be on the lookout for them.

This assumes, of course, that the person is even aware of the problem.

The object of my derision in this case is the person who left a script for an educational video (a component of an English-teaching course) on one of our copy machines at work. At the beginning of the document is a paragraph with instructions for casting the video, followed by the dialogue between the "principle character" and the "secondary character."

I leafed through the pages to check whether the first use of principle was a typo, but nope. The -le spelling was used throughout the document.

Principle and principal are homophones, so it's not hard to see how they can be confused. But just as we must distinguish orthographically between they're, their, and there, we must use the correct form, principle or principal, according to context.

Both words come from the Latin princeps ('leader' in the sense of 'initiator'), but from two different Latin derivatives: principalis 'chief, leading' and principium 'beginning'. It would have helped if an l hadn't wiggled into the spelling of the latter somewhere between Middle French principe and Middle English principle, but we're stuck with it. Today, we need to resort to mnemonic tricks to help us with the difference.

The first thing to remember is that principle cannot be an adjective. It is only a noun, so if you find yourself wanting to describe something, use principal instead. It can help to think of the -le ending of principle as matching the -le of rule.

In contrast, principal is most often an adjective (A for adjective, A in -pal), as in "the principal character." The noun uses are mainly restricted to two narrow contexts: for certain leadership roles, such as the principal of a law firm or a school (for which you can dredge up the grade school memory trick "The principal is my pal"); and for a sum of money that earns interest (for which you can try to remember that it is from the adjectival use "principal sum").

Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.

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Thursday December 10th 2009, 1:55 AM
Comment by: James P. (Oakland, CA)
It frustrates me to no end that folks can't follow these simple rules of grammar and spelling. I always thought of my school principal, and I learned that this was the most important, i.e., principal member of the school staff. This made it easy to equate 'most important' with 'principal.'
Thursday December 10th 2009, 4:41 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
What frustrates me to no end is that folks are not taught grammar when children (and children are not to be blamed, are they? It’s school’s responsibility. What are the schools doing? First the society the children are part of is not teaching them what they should know (and what could be more essential than language, without which we would not understand each other?), then has the nerve of blaming them for not knowing! I wish I would have said this, but someone before me said it in a different form: people are made blind first, then blamed for not seeing!). Would my frustration be resolved, yours would disappear too. However, as things go, that’s not likely to happen, as people are more and more spending their time not on enriching their minds, but on texting to each other.
Consider this:
;-) means for texters, wink; AAMOF means “As a matter of fact”; ATM means “At the moment”; FOTFL means “Falling on the floor laughing” (though I think that learning that language shrinks more and more is not a laughing matter); WWY? means Where were you?, which of course brings into my mind Baudelaire’s words: “anywhere as long as it is out of this world”; and if Baudelaire was unhappy with the state of the world, how should we be, as our planet becomes less and less friendly and less and less inhabitable? It seems to me that a total ignorance is going to cover the whole earth quite soon, and when I say this I am rather realistic than pessimistic. I think that an irreversible mutation has already occurred. Everything seems to be regressing, as if mankind, not sure as yet that has evolved from monkeys, wants to demonstrate that that was the case, and does the best to become one with the so called close relative.
Thursday December 10th 2009, 1:46 PM
Comment by: keith H. (camden point, MO)
Thanks for the explanations, and James P.'s principle of important principals.

I am also annoyed by poor grammar & usage, but I'm guilty, too.
I'll ignore capitalization, use too many ampersands, but I usually try to close parenthesis.

Being old as dirt, I have noticed, however, that communicating effectively with my 20-year old son and his peers requires some Texting Skills. My son and some of the "hip kids" (read smart, good students) also ridicule the LOL's, but I find myself wanting to abbreviate and hack up grammar in order to save keystrokes...

After all, I'm TYPING ON A PHONE. No easy ampersands, that's for the programmers, I guess.

I've seen friends degrade their formerly sterling communications in poor usage and format... email and "texting" seem to somehow authorize it.

My son's very young high school Spanish teacher couldn't speak Spanish. WTF?
Thursday December 10th 2009, 10:50 PM
Comment by: S E.
Oh, stop it with the texting curmudgeonry! English is a beautiful, plastic language. Whence the mid-sentence capitalization of Non-Proper nouns (think Emily Dickinson)? wherefore the uncaps of e.e. cummings? Abbreviations= the joy of cryptology. Expression, people, creative expression!
Saturday December 12th 2009, 11:16 PM
Comment by: karen P. (encinitas, CA)
Can someone tell me the difference in usage between affect and effect, i usually just guess and cross my fingers!
Sunday December 13th 2009, 5:22 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)

Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by sunrise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect.
The Poetics of Aristotle by Aristotle

Life is hard to bear: but do not affect to be so delicate
Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book For All And None by Nietzsche, Friedrich

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