Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Matter of Principal

The Grammar Nazi asks you to take note of the first word that appears in this picture: Principal. Now, consider the context. And, hopefully, like the Grammar Nazi, you pound your head in frustration when you see someone else go against all principles of good word usage and use the wrong principle.

The old saw goes that to remember the difference between principal and principle is to remember that the principal of your school is your p-a-l. (And, yes, Supernintendo Chalmers, it does follow that you, sir, put the "Super" in superintendent.) But back to the saw. It's kind of creepy. I have only vague memories of the principal at Lincoln Elementary: Mr. Black, who was bald and wore Woody Allen-style glasses. I remember him only as an occasional presence in the hallway and a name on a door, but not a pal in any sense of the world. And the only thing I remember about Mr. Georgia, principal at Iona Elementary where I sent for one year, is that he was a snappy dresser who wore a white belt to match his shoes.

Both words come to us from the French, who stole it from the Latin principalis and principium, which both mean "first or original." OVer the years, however, though the words shared the same root and nearly the same pronunciation and spelling, the difference in meaning has widened so far that the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says the words "have no sense in common." It may help (but not much) to remember that principle is a noun and a noun only, while principal can be both an adjective and a noun.

Sow how to remember the p-a-l versus p-l-e? The Grammar Nazi says: Just remember it. Achtung!

Addendum: I have struck upon a new mantra, one meant to help me fix a common phonics-related spelling error I find myself making all the time. The word is pursue. I always want to spell it phonetically, drawing out my atrocious east Idaho accent: persue. Phonics, incidentally, is probably why people get principal/ple mixed up all the time, as, phonetically (at least in east Idaho) the words are indistinguishable.

So here goes:

pursue pursue pursue pursue pursue pursue pursue pursue pursue

1 comment:

carl g said...

So, when are you going after counsel/council? Did I miss that? Accept/except? Purpose/porpoise? A grammar nazi's work is never done.

Have you ever read The Transitive Vampire?