Principal or Principle? It May Not Be as Simple as You Think
When I was a kid, there was a simple reminder to help us choose correctly from principal or principle. But it didn’t tell the whole story.
A mnemonic is a simple memory aid that helps remind us of something we should have learned but might not otherwise know for certain.
One of the most famous ones is the rhyme that begins, “I before E, except after C….” For those of us who haven’t managed to remember the spelling of every possible word, it serves as an easy way to remember a trick that might just help us avoid an embarrassing spelling blunder.
Another mnemonic that begins, “30 days hath September, April, June and November…” helps us figure out without having to consult a calendar how many days there are in each month. (There are 31 days, not 30, in July, for example.)
Principal or principle?
When I was a kid, some clever teacher somewhere came up with a mnemonic to help us make the correct choice between principal or principle. The memory aid was so short and simple that there wasn’t even enough time for a rhyme:
Your principal is your PAL.
Thanks to this little sentence, students believed the headmaster of the school could be your friend. Maybe those feelings of camaraderie faded if the student in question found himself in a great deal of trouble, but I wasn’t one of those students, so I can’t speak to that possibility.
However, while the phrase could help you distinguish between the leader of a school and a fundamental truth, there was an alternate meaning that was easily missed.
Yes, students of yesteryear, I’m sorry to tell you that something was left out of that little principal mnemonic. That’s because there’s a second meaning for that word: the most important, consequential, or influential.
Merriam-Webster gives the examples, “the principal ingredient” or “the region’s principal city.”
Honestly, though I know that I must have known that, off the top of my head, I was a little surprised by that somehow. I guess I’ve just been writing principal when I was talking about a primary something-or-other when I thought I was writing principle.
Otherwise, surely someone would have alerted me to the error of my ways by now. At least, I think they would have.