If I use principal when I mean principle, is that a spelling error or grammatical error?

It seems a spelling error to me but a friend argues that it is a grammatical error because I used the wrong word.

  • 5
    If you used the correct word but spell it wrong, it's a spelling error. If you used the wrong word but spelled it properly, it's a grammar error.
    – Davo
    Oct 18, 2019 at 14:15
  • That seems ambiguous to me, since a wrong spelling of a word which is not correct spelling of some other word may well become correct spelling of some word later. So what is grammatical error today might be a spelling error tomorrow? See also Mixing up “quiet” and “quite”: spelling or grammar error? Oct 18, 2019 at 14:58
  • 1
    An old mnemonic helps me remember the correct use. The principal is your pal. The principal has principles.
    – puppetsock
    Oct 18, 2019 at 15:20
  • FWIW, principal, the amount owed on a mortgage, continues to get us, at Money.SE. And as Ram suggests, I consider it a typo. Oct 18, 2019 at 16:09
  • 1
    If the structure of a sentence requires a noun at a certain point and you use the wrong noun, how is that a grammatical error? The sentence would not have the meaning you intended, but could still be fine grammatically.
    – nnnnnn
    Oct 19, 2019 at 0:25

3 Answers 3


It's neither of them really. It's a lexical error, meaning an error in choice of words. Grammatical errors are really just violations of the patterns of our language. Spelling errors are unintentional, so if you are really convinced you're using the right word, it doesn't count (thus they can be hard to differentiate from lexical errors in finished works, but that's what proofreaders and editors are for.)


It's a spelling error. As you said, you meant "principle". You just spelled it "principal". If you'd spelled it "principel", there wouldn't be any question about the type of error. The fact that your misspelling happens to be another word doesn't change the nature of the error.

Consider these two examples:

"I like the read convertible." - Did I misspell "red" or did I choose the verb "read" or its adjectival form? Most people would say that I misspelled "red". Why? 1) Very few people would think the verb "read" makes sense in this sentence, so they wouldn't expect me to mistakenly choose it. 2) No one expects me to confuse "red" and "read".

"I have to catch the buss at 10 o'clock". Did I misspell "bus" or did I choose the word "buss" (n. kiss https://www.dictionary.com/browse/buss). Again, most people would say that I misspelled "bus". Why? 1) Except in a very specific context, using "buss" wouldn't make sense, so I wouldn't be expected to choose it. 2) No one expects me to confuse "bus" and "buss".

Is "principal/principle" different than "red/read" and "bus/buss" in a way that would change the type of the error? I don't think so. Errors with "principal/principle" are obviously much more frequent than the others, but the frequency of an error doesn't change its type. Some people don't realize that "principal/principle" are two different words. While this would rarely be the case for "red/read", it would usually be the case for "bus/buss" and as noted above, this is a spelling error. People often have trouble remembering which is which even after the difference is pointed out. While this is true, the point of confusion is that people can't remember whether "a fundamental law or truth" is spelled "principle" or "principal" and whether "first or highest in rank" is spelled "principle" or "principal", i.e. a spelling issue.

Definitions adapted from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/principle and https://www.dictionary.com/browse/principal.

  • 1
    The only problem with this approach is that it requires you to know the thoughts of the writer to make the determination. For an objective answer, you need to clearly define the term spelling error. If by spelling error you mean the person wrote a sequence of letters which are different from the expected spelling of the obviously intended word, then yes, it's a spelling error. On the other hand, if you define spelling error to mean using a sequence of letters that does not correspond to any expected spelling, then the answer is no.
    – barbecue
    Oct 18, 2019 at 21:45
  • barbecue makes an interesting point about determining whether or not it's a spelling error. I would like to point out, though, that even if it doesn't meet whatever definition of a spelling error is used, it doesn't follow that it is a grammatical error.
    – weissj
    Oct 18, 2019 at 22:03
  • Since "principle" and "principal" can both be nouns, it's not a grammatical error to choose the wrong one. If it's not considered a spelling error, it's a semantic error.
    – Barmar
    Oct 21, 2019 at 4:35
  • I was discussing this with some friends last night and made the same argument as Barmar. My friends said this was just semantics (I think the irony was lost on them.) Since these friends are well-educated reasonable people, it made me think that we have different concepts of "grammar". For me, it covers syntax and some morphology. For them, it was clearly broader. This makes agreeing on whether something is a grammatical error difficult since one person might be answering "is this a syntax error" and the other answering "is this a syntax or semantic or ... error."
    – weissj
    Oct 21, 2019 at 16:55

Spelling error; both are different words

Principle is a noun; principal is an adj., except in cases like School Principal.

  • "principal" has other noun uses, like the principal of a loan.
    – Barmar
    Oct 21, 2019 at 4:37

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