When I was in high school, I had the good fortune to land in Mr. Crowlie’s American History class. He was passionate about his subject and about teaching, and his principal goal was to inspire us to think for ourselves, rather than regurgitate what we had read or heard.
I was among the handful of students who gladly skipped school assemblies, choosing instead to spend those precious hours in Mr. Crowlie’s classroom, discussing the great ideas of our times. I also attended Saturday afternoon coffee klatches, a series of casual meetings led by Mr. Crowlie and hosted by one or another of our parents. We drank coffee, ate pastry, and discussed democracy, liberty, freedom, education, economics. It was exhilarating!
It was also short-lived. Brilliant though he was, my favorite teacher was anything but tactful, and his rebellious nature and wry sense of humor got him into deep trouble.
Standing on the principle that such a uniquely qualified teacher should remain in front of the classroom, his students rallied to his defense. I tried to help by stopping by the junior high school I had attended and asking the principal if he would speak in support of Mr. Crowlie at his dismissal hearing.
The principal’s answer was no. But he did give me an unsolicited lesson in spelling and English usage. As I left his office, he pointed to the sign above the door and said, PrinciPAL, stressing the last three letters.
I didn’t agree that he was my pal. But I did begin to see the differences between principal and principle.
The two words are homophones: They sound the same, and in addition to being spelled differently, they have different meanings:
When used as a noun, principal means head or chief
When used as an adjective, principal means main or most important
Principle is a noun that means rule or standard.
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