Commonly confused words: principal and principle

Principal and principle:  two words that have five commonly used but different meanings between them:

  • an idea or philosophical concept
  • one of the key parts of a code of behaviour or morality (usually used as a plural)
  • a lump of money that is invested or borrowed with interest
  • the head of school or other organisation
  • the main part of something

The question is: which meaning goes with which spelling? And are there any ways to remember?

Well, principle is the spelling used for ideas or philosophical concepts and a code of morality.

  • The principle of ‘Do no harm’ underlies modern medicine.
  • The Statue of Liberty embodies the principle of freedom.
  • She doesn’t have many principles but she won’t stoop to defrauding a charity.

One way to remember this is that both of these uses are nouns that apply to different types of ideas, to things we can’t touch. A further way is to remember that most of our philosophy comes to use from European thinkers, and principle ends with a European word – the French word for the (le).

The other three meanings all go with principal. Two of these meanings are nouns (the lump of money and the head of a school); the third meaning is an adjective, a word used to describe something else.  A key to remember the first two meanings is that they apply to things we can see and touch, and this spelling of principal also ends with a word that means something we can touch (a pal).  The way a schoolteacher once explained it to my class was that we were to remember the principal was our pal – but that only helps with one meaning (and may not be true for everyone!).

  • Banks are issuing fewer interest-only loans; more borrowers must now regularly pay back interest and part of the principal.
  • The principal had been in charge for several years.
  • The principal parts of a sentence are the subject and verb.

As for the final meaning, the last two letters of principal look a bit like ‘a1’, and something that is a1 importance will be the key or main part of something. Or that al  (at the end of principal) looks a bit like ai, the middle two letters of main, so it is the spelling to use for the main part of something.

The beauty of English is that we can construct sentences where we pile up the different meanings and spellings:

  • The principal’s principal principle of all her principles was to help the students learn what they needed to know, such as that a principal-and-interest loan will usually have higher ongoing repayments than an interest-only loan, where the principal is not paid back until at the end of the loan.

(The head of the school’s main idea of all her code of morals was to help the students learn what they needed to know, such as that a loan for a lump sum and interest will usually have have higher ongoing payments than an interest-only loan, where the lump sum is not paid back until the end of the loan.)

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Photo: by Victor Daniel Giraldo on Unsplash

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