Stop! Grammar Time! Principle/Principal

129196259974300732Here’s a goof I see all the time. It doesn’t help that the two words are pronounced the same and only differ by two letters, but they have very different meanings. The two meanings can even have serious legal significance, so ignore them at your peril.

Principal as a noun has two meanings: an administrator, e.g. principal of a school; or a sum of money, e.g. principal of a loan.

Principal as an adjective means “primary” or “most important,” e.g. “The principal reason we are firing you is your refusal to wear pants.”

Principle is a noun, meaning “rule” or “maxim,” e.g. “I will not wear pants, because to do so would violate my principles.”

A guide some of us learned as kids is to think of the principal as your pal. That only covers one possible definition, but it’s a start.

Photo credit: ‘PRINCIPLE PRINCIPAL’ by Amuk, via Cheezburger.


Stop! Grammar Time! Know Your Apostrophes

Your: a possessive second-person adjective, e.g. “You left your whip at my house last night.”

You’re: a contraction of “you are,” thus creating a subject/predicate relationship in a single word. E.g. “You’re getting glitter all over me.”

Its: a possessive third-person gender-neutral adjective, e.g. “The Predator aimed its laser cannon at the Alien Queen.”

It’s: a contraction of “it is,” e.g. “It’s hard out here for a pimp.”

Their: a possessive third-person plural adjective, e.g. “Do not eat their porridge.”

They’re: a contraction of “they are,” e.g. “They’re going to break through the outer barricades and capture our flag!”

There: multi-function word, often serving as an adverb modifying the verb “to be,” e.g. “The the porta-potty is there.” Arguably, uses of “there” as a pronoun (“There are bees in here!”) or as an adjective (“William there, he enjoys a good haggis”) are really just variations on the use of “there” as an adverb. “There” could also be an interjection, e.g. “So there, biatch!”

To review:

Possessive adjectives: your, its, their

Contractions of a pronoun and a verb: you’re, it’s, they’re

Multi-purpose: there


Stop! Grammar Time!


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Language is a constantly-evolving beast. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is the worst possible form of communication, except for all the others that have been tried. Words fall out of usage, to the point where the lose whatever original meaning they may have had. When is the last time you heard someone, in a fit of pique, say “fie on them”? For that matter, when did you last hear someone use the phrase “a fit of pique”?

At the same time, we add new words to the language at an alarming rate. (It’s not worth crying over, so I’ll just have to LOL.)

I’m not that big on the finer points of English literary conventions. (Note how I put the questions marks outside the quotation marks up there? That’s just how I roll.) What does bug me is when words that have a very specific meaning, often in a legal sense (legalese alert…), start to veer away from their specialized meaning. This eventually causes confusion as to whether someone means the specific definition or something else. Sometimes, hilarity ensues, and sometimes, OMG.

Pondering this (yes, this really is how I spend my time), I thought of the part-snarky, all-dorky headline (unfortunately it’s not original), and I was going to dive into an example. Then I realized that I wasn’t sure if “grammar” is even the right word to use here. What if I should be saying “syntax”?

So I went to the dictionary, and apparently “syntax” is a form of “grammar,” I guess sort of like how entomology is a form of biology.


a : the study of the classes of words, their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence

b : a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax


a : the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)

b : the part of grammar dealing with this

So yeah, I’m going with grammar on this one. Stay tuned.

Image credit: ‘MC Hammer Slide,’ xkcd 108 [CC BY-NC 2.5], via