Q&A: A matter of principle

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's a matter of principle…

Q: Hey, can we discuss the difference between “principle” and “principal”?
A: Sure can. A lot of people trip over this one.
Q: I tripped over my principal in high school. Got given a week’s detention.
A: Sorry to hear that. Anyway, it’s actually a fairly simple distinction. Let’s begin with “principle”.
Q: Yes, let’s.
A: Now the reason we started with this one is because it only has one job.
Q: Like my Uncle Ralph?
A: Well, probably like many people actually.
Q: But my Aunt Janine is always telling him “you had just one job, Ralph”…
A: Okay then, sure. So the one job that “principle” has is to be a noun meaning a fundamental truth/rule/law that forms the foundation of one’s beliefs.
Q: Example?
A: “We don’t do karaoke on principle.”
Q: Not even Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond?
A: Not even.
Q: In high school I once did karaoke on the principal. I was given detention for a month.
A: We’re going to ignore that. So anyway, that’s one example. Another example might be a “scientific principle” or “the basic principles of nature” or being “a man of principle”.
Q: Okay, I get it.
A: So from here, it’s easy. Because all the other meanings are “principal”!
Q: So we’ve got the principal of a school…
A: Yes, and any time it’s a person, you can use the common adage of “the principal is your pal” to remember it.
Q: I prefer to just imagine Prince Harry in charge of my school.
A: Yes, but that wouldn’t work because both words start with… oh never mind. So “principal” not only means someone in charge of a school, but is also the head of a company, star of a film, lead in an orchestra section or other “head” roles in business.
Q: So one of the principals of the 1984 film Purple Rain was the late, great Prince.
A: That’s right. Another meaning of the noun “principal” will be familiar to anyone with a mortgage – it’s the first part of the loan from which interest is calculated. Other financial, technology and legal noun definitions also exist, but it’s the adjective “principal” that we want to look at next.
Q: Like as in “principal photography”?
A: Yes, so the principal definition for the adjective form is “highest in rank” or “of most importance”.
Q: Can I have an example?
A: We already used one in the last sentence.
Q: Oh you’re good. #slowclap
A: Finally, you’ll also see the adverb “principally” – meaning “for the most part”, or “chiefly”. An example might be that “she is principally an author, but enjoys belly dancing on weekends”…
Q: She sounds very interesting. I’d like to read her books.
A: We just made her up.
Q: Oh okay. So quick recap: if something sounds a bit goody-good, it’s being done “on principle”. Meanwhile, all of the “principal” meanings come back to “being first” or in charge.
A: We completely agree, in principle…

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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