There's more to it than “the principal is your pal.”
Today we’re going to recall that the principal is indeed your “pal,” but we’ll also see that a principal can be so much more. In this episode we’ll talk about the various ways to use “principle”—that’s “p-l-e”—and “principal”—that’s “p-a-l.” (These two words are pronounced the same way, principle, but I'm going to pronounce the one that ends with “pal” “princi-pal” so you can follow along more easily.)
A listener named Sarah has come across the word “principal” in relation to a job title and is wondering if that's the correct meaning. She asks, “If I am the partner that is responsible for and a technical contributor to our MySQL practice, will I be the principal (as I was taught over-simplistically in elementary school, the principal is your pal; it’s a noun) or the principle (a law or precept—again simplistic)? I don’t tend to think of myself as a law unto myself or the primary source, so spelling it ‘principle’ doesn’t seem right. And the definition of ‘principal’ of most important, consequential, or influential is closer, but I’ve gotten feedback from clients that each is wrong.”
It’s easy to confuse similar-sounding words like “principal” and “principle.” Let’s look at “principle” (ending in “p-l-e”) first. Sarah is right that it refers to a fundamental law, doctrine, or tenet (1). It is a noun only. You could use it to refer to grammatical principles, meaning rules, or you could say that someone is a man of principle, meaning a man who has strong ideals. As Sarah suspects, “principle” has nothing to do with a job title.
The word “principal” (ending in “p-a-l”), on the other hand, just might. Like Sarah, you’ve probably heard the trick that the head of a school is your pal. That is a good way to remember the spelling of “principal” because he or she is a fair disciplinarian and so is your pal, and because the head of a school is indeed spelled with “p-a-l” at the end. But the word means more than that.
“Principal” can be an adjective or a noun (2). The most common meaning of “principal” as an adjective is main, or highest in rank or importance, as in “My principal complaint is a persistent headache.”
You can also turn “principal” into the adverb “principally,” which means “for the most part.” You might see it in a sentence like this: “She was principally an abstract painter.”
As a noun, the word “principal” has more than ten meanings. As we’ve already seen, it refers to the head of a school. It also refers to the non-interest portion of a loan, as in “The principal is $250,000.” I don’t want to read the dictionary to you, so feel free to look up all the meanings.
We’ll just jump to the meaning that might answer Sarah’s question. One of the meanings of “principal” is a person in a leading or starring role. This could refer to a person acting in a play or movie, as in “Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are the principals in the movie ‘Star Trek.’” I believe we can make this definition fit the business definition Sarah is looking for.
A dictionary of business terms (3) states that a principal is “a high-level individual (i.e., partner) in a CPA firm having major authority and responsibilities” or “an owner, especially one with executive authority, of a business firm.” Now, Sarah is working for a computer company, not a CPA firm, but no matter. You can indeed refer to someone as a principal of a business. Those who are the heads of large corporations are called CEOs, but if you own a small graphic design firm, for example, or are a bigwig in a computer firm, you can call yourself a principal.
In summary, please remember that “principle” and “principal” are both pronounced “principle.” I've just said them differently here to make it easier to follow along. Although they sound alike they're spelled differently and have different meanings.
“Principle” with a “p-l-e” has one main meaning: a rule or doctrine. “Principal” with a “p-a-l,” on the other hand, has many meanings, including the leader of a school, the non-interest part of a loan, and an important person in a business. Your principal is indeed your pal, but an important person in a business can be your pal, too.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, is the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.