Grammar Hammer: It’s the Principle of the Thing


“The principal is your PAL!”

With apologies to Ferris Bueller, that’s how I learned the difference between “principle” and “principal.” Here again, we have two words that sound the same, but have two completely different meanings.

“Principle” refers to a fundamental law, doctrine, or tenet. It can only be used as a noun.

“Principal” actually has a lot of heft as a word. It can be an adjective (meaning “main, or highest rank in importance”); an adverb (meaning “for the most part” – example: “Norman was principally a life studies model.”); or a noun (meaning “the head of a school,” “the non-interest portion of a loan,” along with a bunch of other meanings, which you can see for yourself here).

From a business perspective, the difference between principle and principal gets most confused when talking about someone who is most important in a business or organization. For example, “Jane Doe is the principle/principal designer for XYZ Designs, Inc.” Which is the correct word? I see this mistake pretty often. The correct answer is “principal.”


The old “the principal is your pal” trick does work in helping you determine which word to use.

Talking about a person? Principal.

Talking about a belief? Principle.

If you’re standing on the principal, you’ll probably be arrested. If you’re standing up for something that is a deeply-held, long-standing belief, you are someone who holds strong to your principles.

Just remember, “It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them.” – Alfred Adler

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at

A version of this post originally appeared on PR Newswire’s Beyond PR blogAuthor Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

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