Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Homophones can be really challenging, even for native English speakers. Here are a couple of words that sound exactly the same, but they are spelled differently and have entirely different meanings. I can’t even to count the number of times I’ve seen there, their and they’re used incorrectly. Less commonly, we see people mistake principle and principal. What’s the difference?

Principle usually refers a rule, a standard, a basic assumption or a law. It is only ever used as a noun. For example, you might talk about the basic principles of organic chemistry in science class. In discussing these basic principles, you might talk about atomic structure and chemical bonds.

You could also talk about principles in the context of ethics and morals. Alfred Adler said that it is easier to fight for one’s principles than it is to live up to them. If you believe in basic honesty and integrity, then these are your principles. You might also hear people say that they are fighting something based on principle and not based on potential profit or gain. A man of principle is a man of high moral standards.

Principal, on the other hand, can be used either as an adjective or as a noun, but the fundamental meaning usually leads back to being important, in high position or being first. Seymour Skinner is the principal of Springfield Elementary School in the TV show The Simpsons. He is in charge of the school. If you have a large group of investors in a new company, then the ones who are contributing the greatest amount (or main participants) may be called the principal investors or even simply the principals. The lead performer in a play or musical may also be called the principal.

On the subject of investing and finances, the initial or original sum of money in an investment or loan is called the principal. For example, if you bought a bond for $100 and that bond was worth $120 at maturity, then you could say that you earned $20 of interest on your principal of $100. When you have a mortgage, your goal is to “pay down the principal” until it reaches zero.

If you’re talking about something that is chief, main or first, then “principal” is still the word that you want. The principal concern of the daycare workers is the safety of the children. Three of the principal cities of Canada are Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

The easiest way to remember the difference between “principle” and “principal” is that “principal” always refers to being first, because it has the letter “A” in it. Getting an “A” in class should also help you remember that a principal is the person who runs a school. “Principles,” on the other hand, have to do with rules, because both words end with -le.

Now that you understand this principal principle, you’ll never confuse the two words again.