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Principal vs Principle

Here’s a test. Which forms of the word pair principal/principle fit in these examples?

  1. This dollar figure covers just interest–not interest plus ______.
  2. The ______ reason for our visit is to meet the new director.
  3. Which ______ did you follow to solve this problem?


Here’s the rule–that is, here’s the principle:

Principle (le) means “rule” (le). All other uses require principal. If you grew up thinking “the principal is my pal,” you were right. However, principal has other meanings. Rather than trying to remember all of them, it’s easier to remember that principle (le) has only one meaning: “rule”  (le). Someone with principles is someone with rules.

Following that principle, the correct choices for the blanks above are principal, principal, principle.

Your grammar checker is unlikely to catch this error. That’s because discerning the right word requires thinking. After all, the difference between “Which principle did you follow to solve this problem?” and “Which principal did you follow into the main office of the school?” is subtle.

The important difference between us and our grammar and spell checkers is that we know our principles–I mean principals. I mean . . . it depends!

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.