Have you ever had an experience where you thought you knew the difference between two words, but when you were presented with a question about which one to use in a particular sentence, you found yourself feeling a bit stumped? Maybe we even made you feel this way just now with the question in our featured image for this post.
No matter how proficient you are in English, it’s common to feel pretty comfortable with your grasp of the language most of the time but to feel surprisingly confused when asked about the difference between two or three commonly misused words. “Principal” and “principle” are one set of commonly misused words that tend to throw a lot of people for a loop. But because you probably find yourself needing to use at least one of them every now and then, we’re going to use this post to talk about the difference between “principal” and “principle.”
Let’s start off with “principal.” You may remember from elementary school that the person in charge of the school was the principal of the school; this was the person whose office you never wanted to get sent to. Instead, you wanted to make sure that the principal was your pal. Note that the last three letters of “principal” make up the word “pal”; you can use this trick to remember which word to use to refer to the head of a school.
When we use the word “principal” to refer to the head of a school, we’re using it as a noun. Remember that nouns are words that refer to people, animals, places, and things. However, we can also use the word “principal” as an adjective, a word that describes a noun. Specifically, we use the word “principal” when we’re trying to refer to something that is the most important or highest in rank of a series of things. For example, we would use “principal” as an adjective in sentences like these:
- “The principal security risk is that our data isn’t encrypted.”
- “Although there were a number of issues that delayed the fall issue of the magazine, the principal problem was that our chief writer was on vacation for several weeks.”
- “We have many ideas that we want to get the client’s thoughts on, but the principal decisions that we need to make are the following.”
Notice how a “principal” is the person with the highest rank at an individual school, so it’s easy to see how the noun and adjective forms of “principal” are related.
In comparison to “principal,” which can be either a noun or an adjective, “principle” is only a noun. We use the word “principle” when we’re talking about rules of conduct. For example, we would use “principle” in sentences like these:
- “The book does a good job of describing the basic principles of content marketing.”
- “I don’t care about the money. It’s a matter of principle.”
- “He was a man of principle.”
“Because “principal” vs. “principle” are spelled in a similar way, it’s easy to mix the two up or forget which one means which. You can remember the difference between these words using this trick: “principal” contains an “A” because “principal” refers to the highest rank of something and “A” is the first letter of the alphabet. On the other hand, “principle” means “rule,” so both words end with the same two letters (“-le”).
Want to know the difference between other commonly misused words? Check out our post on the difference between “historic” and “historical.”
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