Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

Socrates (469-399 B.C.), the classical Greek Athenian philosopher, believed there are two ruling and directing principles in all of us: one being an innate desire of pleasure; the other, an acquired judgement, which aspires after excellence. In his book ‘Simply English: An A to Z of Avoidable Errors’ (2014), Simon Heffer certainly aspires after excellence in grammar, and finds it “remarkable” that anyone could confuse what he calls the “straightforward distinction” between the two words, ‘principal’ and ‘principle’.

Mr Heffer is a British editor, historian, journalist and self-proclaimed grammar pedant who takes it for granted that anyone who speaks and writes the English language has been, or should be, taught the rules of English grammar. He ignores the fact that today almost ‘anything goes’ when it comes to grammar, and rules are being lost. However, I chuckle at his high-handedness and indignant discourse on ignorance.

And so I snuggle down in the corner of the ring that defends the righteousness of ‘acquired judgement, which aspires after excellence’ (thanks Socrates). I place one hand over my heart and the other on the Editing and Proofreading Bible, denouncing ignorance and pronouncing the difference between ‘principal’ and ‘principle’ (for those who care).

Principal can be a noun or an adjective.

As a noun, ‘principal’ refers to:

someone who holds a presiding position or first rank, such as the head of a primary or secondary school.

someone who draws up a contract, and he or she is the major party or owner in that contract.

capital or property before interest.

As an adjective, ‘principal’ refers to the first, the most important, or the most prominent feature in a large number of them, such as:

 principal actors or dancers

 the principal design element

Principle is only noun. In its primary sense, it refers to a basic truth (as we see in Socrates’ principles), a fundamental law, assumption, or rule, such as:

grammatical principles (or rules)

A woman of principle (having strong ideals)

The principle of DNA sequencing

Although Simon Heffer would probably scoff at the word ‘principally’ (an adverb meaning ‘for the most part’), in my opinion it is perfectly acceptable in a sentence such as:

She was principally a landscape painter.


Simon Heffer is obviously intolerant of those who confuse ‘principle’ and ‘principal’, and as a proofreader I make sure that the correct word is used in the context of a sentence. For many writers the difficulty arises due to the fact that the two words sound the same and their meanings have to be learned. However, although ‘principle’ and ‘principal’ sound alike, and share a distant origin in the Latin princep (meaning first or original), they originate from separate French sources and have always been different words in English. Does that help?



Featured painting: Jacques Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

One Response so far.

  1. Nita Jaye says:

    I like the painting. A matter of principle.

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