Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing Tip of the Week: Principal and Principle

Principal and principle look and sound alike, yet have different meanings. While principal can be a noun or an adjective, principle is a noun.

As a noun, principal generally means main or head person, such as the principal of a school.  (Some people remember this meaning using the memory device, “the principal is our pal.”)  As a noun, it can also mean a capital sum of money; a perpetrator or aider and abettor to a crime; or one who employs another (an agent) to act for him.  When used as an adjective, principal means “main” or “primary,” such as the principal finding in a study.

On the other hand, principle is a noun that means a rule, tenet, or basic truth, such as the principle of gravity. 

Thus, use principal as a noun to refer to important people and as an adjective to signify someone or something important.  In contrast, use principle, a noun, when you mean a rule or doctrine.
  • The principal of the high school led the students in singing the national anthem. (principal as a noun meaning the main or head person)
  • The principal issue in this case is whether the defendant waived his right to trial by jury. (principal as an adjective meaning main or primary)
  • Freedom and justice are the principles upon which our country was founded. (principle meaning rule, tenet or basic truth)
For more information, see Anne Enquist & Laurel Currie Oates, Just Writing 311 (3d ed. 2009) and Laurel Currie Oates & Anne Enquist, The Legal Writing Handbook 775-76 (5th ed. 2010).