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Principle vs Principal

English Usage, Vocabulary & Spelling

Principal Skinner

The Principle of the Principal.

At the —– School of English, we believe in the principals of accuracy, hard work and having fun.

I came across this snippet the other day whilst looking at a school website and it frightened me.

If they can’t spell properly, how can they believe in the idea of accuracy?

But it’s an easy mistake to make and you’ll find many people – not just learners but native speakers as well – who confuse Principal and Principle so here’s a simple guide to what the two words mean and how to use them correctly.

Why the Mistake?

The reason people make the mistake and confuse the two words is because when the words are spoken they have exactly the same pronunciation:

principal – prɪnsəpl
principle – prɪnsəpl

But as you’ll see, they have very different meanings.


Let’s start with the -PLE ending: princiPLE.

The usual meaning is: a general rule or law.

The principle remains the same: an iron fist in a velvet glove.

The unshakeable American commitment to the principle of unconditional surrender.

Just try swapping principle for rule and you’ll see how the word fits right in.

The rule remains the same: an iron fist in a velvet glove.

The unshakeable American commitment to the rule of unconditional surrender.

This is going to cover the majority of uses of principle but you’ll also see the word used to mean good morals which, if you think about it, is related to following good laws and rules:

He won’t take a bribe, he has principles!

Have you ever met a principled politician? No, me either.

So if you remember that when you’re talking about a law or belief or morals then it’s principle with PLE.


Let’s move on the –PAL ending now: princiPAL.

There is an old trick which helps you remember what this means and it goes something like this:

A pal is a friend and a friend is a person.

Now simply remember that the head teacher of the school is a person.

I was sent to see the Principal.
The Principal sat in the front row.

Also, if you try to put the word rule there it just doesn’t make sense:

* I was sent to see the rule.
* The rule sat in the front row.

* an asterisk denotes a sentence which doesn’t make sense.

Moving on further, when you think about the head teacher, you are thinking about the boss of course who is the most important person in the school. The Big Cheese. The Head Honcho. The Numero Uno… and we can use the word principal to mean the boss and, by extension, the main or most important part of something.

The principal conductor = the main conductor

My principal complaint = my main complaint

The principal rite of passage = the most important rite of passage

I’m principally a TEFL teacher although I do some writing on the side.

The painting consists principally of two figures dancing in the moonlight.

In these last two examples we’ve turned principal into the corresponding adverb, where it means mainly or most importantly.

principles/principals and money

Taking the meaning of principal to mean most important we can carry it over when the banks and the Sopranos (and other mob-related figures) talk about lending money.

The principal is the original sum borrowed (or lent) and … if you don’t keep all your interest payments up to date

the unpaid interest gets tacked onto the principal you owe.

and you get further into debt! This meaning of principal to mean the main lump sum of money lent or borrowed is the second common meaning of the word.

Oh, and since the banks and the mob don’t have good morals, you may well find that:

because they don’t have principles, they get heavy when you don’t pay back interest on the principal.

image credit The Simpsons licensed as fair use

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