Using Principle vs Principal

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

The homonyms 'principal' and 'principle' are commonly confused but have different meanings and jobs in a sentence. Learn the differences between the two, as well as how they are used, in this lesson.

Principle and Principal

What is the title for the head of a school? It's principal, of course. Or is it principle?

And what about the word for describing the beliefs you stand by, such as not to lie or steal? They are your principles. Or are they principals?

The words 'principle' and 'principal' are a common example of the homonym problem that challenges English speakers, writers, and readers. Homonyms sound alike but have very different meanings. Some homonyms can be spelled the same, but many are spelled differently--just like principle and principal are. And in addition, they do different jobs in a sentence. Let's take a closer look.

Understanding 'Principle'

Let's start with 'principle,' which is probably the easier of the two. As we already established, 'principle' is a noun, or the part of speech for people, places, things, and ideas. 'Principle' is a noun that means a person or group's basic beliefs. You often see it as 'principles' because people and groups often have more than one guiding belief. Let's see some examples:

  • Following the Ten Commandments is one of the basic principles of Christianity.
  • Our company's guiding principles say that we should try to make the world a better place with our products.
  • On principle, I cannot sit by and let this injustice happen.

Understanding 'Principal'

Now let's shift to the other 'principal.' It can also be a noun with a few different meanings. One of the most common is a title for a leader of a school, especially in the United States:

  • Principal Belding retired from Bayside High after 20 years.
  • Tom was promoted to principal of the new elementary school.

Go see the principal!

It can also more generally refer to any leader or person who takes responsibility for a project:

  • I have decided Scott will be the principal for our new social media initiative.
  • Though Jane is in charge of our group, Rachel is still the principal for this whole project.

'Principal' also has an entirely different definition as a noun, referring to a sum of money that is invested or loaned and draws interest:

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