What is the difference between principal and principle? I frequently come across these words and get confused.

  • 7
    Did you at least refer to the dictionaries?
    – user8970
    Jul 23, 2011 at 2:56
  • 5
    Don't despair. Even native speakers confuse the two. You see this error even in the finest newspapers and books.
    – Jimi Oke
    Jul 23, 2011 at 2:56
  • This is a duplicate of "'Principle' or 'Principal'?"
    – Geremia
    Oct 26, 2017 at 17:41

2 Answers 2


These are often confused by many people, and here are the most common meanings I've encountered (a good dictionary will certainly provide more uses of these two words), followed by simple mental imagery you can use to help with remembering the difference:

  • Principal: A "lead" position (in management, or some other hierarchy), such as the Principal of a school. "You'd better straighten up, the Principal is just around the corner!"

  • Principle: A rule, such as one based on ethics and/or morals. "Your honour, I'm suing the defendant for $1.00 not because I need the money, but because it's a matter of principle!"

The trick I use to remember the difference is to imagine an elementary school student who unintentionally broke a rule but just got a second chance (so [s]he didn't have to go to detention) and is now thinking "The Principal is my pal!"

Basically, if it ends with "pal" then it applies to a person who possibly could be your pal.

  • 3
    The principal problem with your mnemonic is that the usage in this sentence is a counterexample.
    – Patrick87
    Jul 23, 2011 at 3:19
  • 1
    Thomas means his comment is a counterexample. When he says "The principal problem..." he is not talking about a person.
    – GEdgar
    Jul 23, 2011 at 13:38
  • 1
    +1 for the pal could be a person aide-memoire, which is all that's relevant really. Any dictionary will suffice for meanings (if it's available and you can be bothered to check), so by strict FAQ, we shouldn't answer such a question. But I think you've managed to give real added value there! :) Jul 24, 2011 at 3:53
  • 1
    @Thomas Carpenter: Very clever, I'll grant. But it's not really a problem. All the 'mnemonic' has to do is remind you that "pal" could be a person, as opposed to (by implication) "ple", which never is. You do still need to remember other usages for the "pal" form, but I think they follow naturally from the "person in high authority" meaning. Jul 24, 2011 at 3:59
  • Thanks @FumbleFingers. I find it very common for answers on this web site to provide a lot of value, so I make an effort to do the same. I really appreciate that you recognized this (+1 for your comment as I see that it further encourages others to strive to provide value too). =) Jul 24, 2011 at 5:17

Principal means main or primary. Principle means idea, notion, belief, etc... especially of an elementary or fundamental notion.

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