Principal vs. principle?

Principal and principle are commonly confused words that are pronounced and spelled similarly but carry different meanings. The word principal is used as a noun or adjective to represent something of importance, such as an executive leader or a primary sum of money. The term principle is only used as a noun and is defined as a fundamental law or an underlying, primary source.

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What is the difference between principal vs. principle?

There are very few instances in one’s professional life that are less embarrassing than sending an important message to a supervisor or client, where simple English Language is misused. This is especially true in the context of using principal or principle, where one is probably talking about something important. 

For example, the word principal is often used to describe a leading position of authority, while principle only exists as a noun to represent a rule, law, or fundamental truth. In fact, principle is often used in conjunction with Christian divinity while describing the rule of God. As we can see, there are several opportunities for awkward silence after making these mistakes. 

But the truth is that we are likely to mix up confusing words like principal and principle more often than we’d like to admit. Not only are they used in similar contexts, but they are also spelled and pronounced nearly the same. Words like principal and principle are examples of homophones, which are different words with separate meanings that are often indistinguishable in speech. As mentioned above, they are also spelled very similarly, which increases the risk of submitting embarrassing typos, to begin with. 

Most native English Language speakers will understand what you mean if the word principle is confused with principal, although the mishap can stand in the way between nailing a proposal or writing pitch if English grammar is essential for maintaining your job. 

What is the principal of a school?

In the United States, we are more likely to use the word principal while referencing a school principal, which is the topmost position of a school. A school principal is responsible for an educational institution as it pertains to staff and student management, school activities, and general public representation. 

Examples of school principals in American pop culture include Mr. Feeny from the 1990s’ television show, Boy Meets World, or Principal Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). With the exception of Mr. Feeny, principals are often depicted negatively in entertainment, and this is likely due to their authoritative positions over students. 

Similar titles exist in place of the school principal, such as headmaster, headmistress, or a headteacher. The primary difference between the principal and its aforementioned titles is how the latter functions within a private institution instead of a public one. For example, Albus Dumbledore is a fictional headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry within the Harry Potter book series.

How to remember the difference between principal vs. principle?

To preserve every bit of written integrity we strive to achieve, it’s critical to learn the difference between words like principle and principal before it’s too late. Here are a few tricks to memorizing the difference between each term: 

Trick #1: Old school mnemonics

The first and oldest trick to learning the difference between principle and principal is to associate the ending “pal” of school principal with a school pal (aka a friend). The alleged troublemakers may not prefer this trick, but if that’s the case–– just think of the “pal” in the opposite form, and it works all the same. 

Summary: Principal = school principal = “pal” or not-your-“pal”

Trick #2: The principles of disciples

While it’s semi-unorthodox, we can memorize the correct way to use principle by associating it with the word disciple. Like principle, the word disciple is spelled using -ciple at the end. Both words are also used in similar contexts when discussing religion since principles are synonymous with the “fundamental principles” of moral beliefs, and disciple represents a follower of such assertions. 

More specifically, a disciple is defined as one of the dozen Apostles from the Bible, but it’s also casually described as a student under a guru, leader, or teacher. 

Summary: Principle + disciple = -ciple (rule of conduct), not -cipal (ruler)

What does principal mean?

The word principal is used as either an adjective or noun to describe something of importance. The word principal integrated into the English Language around the 14th century with Middle English, but it was first used in Anglo-French from the Latin word principalis

How to use principal as a noun

As a noun, principal can represent several types of figures, whether an executive leader, an agent of authority, a leading performer or a person who is responsible for the organization of any specific objective. 

The word principal doesn’t have to be a person, either. In the form of a noun, the principal noun can represent anything that is of primary authority or importance, such as a sum of money accrued outside of interest, the whole net worth of one’s estate, or even the sturdiest section of a house’s roof that keeps the home sturdy and whole. For example,

Our student loan payments only cover the monthly interest rates and not the principal loan amount.

The lead doctor who oversees the clinical research team, is called the principal investigator. 

Synonyms of principal as a noun: 

Headliner, head, lead, leading actor, star, superstar. 

Antonyms of principal as a noun:

Extra, supernumerary.

How to use principal as an adjective

When used as an adjective, the word principal carries a similar meaning, except it’s used to describe something as being important. For instance, we might describe someone with the word principal if they reflect a role similar to that of a chief, or one who is most influential and foremost in their position. 

Synonyms of principal as an adjective: 

Chief, commander, foremost, head, lead, presiding, primary, supreme, top, senior, directing, managing, overseeing, reigning, ruling, predominant, sovereign. 

Antonyms of principal as an adjective: 

Ancillary, subordinate, subsidiary, inferior, less, lower, secondary, assistant, coadjutor. 

What does the word principle mean?

The term principle is used as a noun to define a fundamental law or understanding, whether it’s an underlying truth rooted in morality, science, or human instinct. In a sense, a principle acts as one of many codes for conduct and allows us to understand why things happen and how we can accordingly. 

Principle originates from Latin principium, meaning “source” or “the beginning,” from princip- or princeps, for “initiator,” or “chief.” The term was later adapted into Late Middle English in the 14th century via Middle French. The initial French term principe is related to translations for doctrine, dogma, standard, or norm. 

Synonyms for principle include:

Assumption, concept, convention, doctrine, ethics, idea, precept, rule, truth, theory, dogma, origin, postulate, source.

How to use principle in a sentence

The noun principle is used singularly or as a mass noun. For example,

Singular:

We must act within the group’s set of spiritual principles.

The principles of nature help us to understand our basic truth. 

Mass noun:

Discipline is a matter of principle

A man of honor is a man of principle

What are principles?

If you can remember a time where you didn’t act on something impulsively to avoid a negative consequence, then you already understand one aspect of what a principle is. But there are other times where we make decisions because we thought it was the right thing to do, such as helping somebody in need or acting courageously. 

But how and why do people develop a set of principles in the first place? One way to answer this question is to recognize how people don’t always act in line with how they feel inside, and sometimes their first instinct is the less socially-acceptable action to take. To avoid making mistakes of conduct, people develop a set of fundamental principles to recognize, follow, and teach to others who wish to share the same space peacefully. 

A principle is a rule we understand like a social roadmap for navigating life choices. For example, a vegetarian may have a principle about not eating animal meat, while other principles might include “treat others the way you’d like to be treated,” or “sharing is caring.” 

As we can see, principles are essentially rules we are taught, and we practice principles through discipline and routine. However, a principle can also be innate to all people, whether it involves recognizing emotions or needs for human survival. For example, there are spiritual principles originating from religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism, that are very different in practice but often share similar qualities. 

FAQ: Related to principal vs. principle

What’s the difference between principally vs. principalship?

The words principally and principalship derive from the word principal as an adjective and noun, respectively. The primary difference between either word is that principally is synonymous with primarily or chiefly, while principalship describes the highest-ranking position within an organization (i.e., school principal). Let’s take a look at a few example sentences where either word is used: 

Ms. Jackson feels prepared to take on the principalship at Thomas Jefferson High School. 

The contract is principally focused on social media advertising in New York. 

Is principle the same title as chancellor or an executive director?

In short, a school principal is not the same thing as a chancellor or school director. While either role is considered a principal position for their organization, an educational chancellor is an honorary leader for higher education in the United Kingdom or the president of a university in the US. 

In contrast, an executive director takes on more responsibility for a school in terms of their administrative board duties and overseeing the leadership of a K-12 school from afar. Nearly half of US school principals served as an executive director before moving on to principalship, while upward mobility from either position leads into the role of superintendent. 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between principal vs. principle with the following multiple-choice test.

  1. Which of the following titles are used for a professional who works as the head of a school?
    1. School Principal
    2. Chancellor 
    3. Headmaster
    4. All of the above
  2. The “principal amount” is  ______________.
    1. A number of high school principals
    2. A set of moral beliefs 
    3. An amount of money
    4. None of the above
  3. A “principal reason” shares the same meaning as  _________________.
    1. An underlying reason
    2. A primary reason
    3. A major cause 
    4. All of the above
  4. Which of the following is not an example of principles?
    1. Table manners
    2. A group of high school leaders 
    3. Social norms
    4. A high school’s code of conduct
  5. In regards to religion, the belief in a higher power is the ____________ source of developing ______________.
    1. Principle, principals
    2. Principal, principals
    3. Principal, principles
    4. Principle, principles

Answers

  1. D
  2. C
  3. D
  4. B
  5. C

Sources

  1. Principal.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  2. Principle.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  3. Principle.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
  4. Chancellor.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
  5. How to become a principal.Teacher.org, 2019. 
  6. Who is leading our schools?Movement Within the School Administrative Career Field, RAND Corporation, 2019. 

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