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Principal vs. PrincipleHopeless cause?


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#1 California

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 11:34 AM

My apologies for introducing such a trivial point, but is the distinction between principal and principle now a completely lost cause? I was stunned reading the review by Robert Gottlieb, editor (and critic) extraordinaire, to see this used incorrectly and just assumed a well-intentioned copy editor made the mistake:

The principles, the four couples, come and go in a rapid and inevitable flow, ...


http://observer.com/...-ups-and-downs/

I've been seeing this used incorrectly in more and more places, including many supposedly professional outlets for writing.

In grade school, we learned a simple rule for keeping them straight:

"The principal is my pal." So, "principal" is for persons in a leading role.

"Principle is like a rule, both end in 'le.'" It's never a person.

I blame texting shortcuts for the decline in spelling, but I also blame spell-check. As long as the word matches a correct spelling, it goes through, even if it's the wrong one. Oh well...chalk this up to lost causes, I guess.

#2 volcanohunter

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 11:49 AM

I share your frustration. I've seen the reverse problem as well, with people writing about "standing on principal," and so forth. Sadly, English has a homonym problem.

#3 dirac

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 12:44 PM

I don't think this confusion is a recent development. We're just seeing it more often because there's more carelessness in proofing and editing on the internet (not that such sloppiness doesn't occur in print, as well). As California notes, spell check is also a culprit. When I post links I routinely see references to "principle" dancers, and if I'm using text with the error for a quote I correct it before posting.

#4 sandik

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 01:19 PM

Nice [font="Arial"]mnemonic (which is a word I always have to look up)! "The principal is my pal..."[/font]

#5 angelica

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 01:59 PM

My apologies for introducing such a trivial point, but is the distinction between principal and principle now a completely lost cause? I was stunned reading the review by Robert Gottlieb, editor (and critic) extraordinaire, to see this used incorrectly and just assumed a well-intentioned copy editor made the mistake:


My son is a copy editor and we often joke that everyone blames the copy editor! Except that if you're that copy editor, it's not a joke.

Posted in good fun. :)

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 02:07 PM

Sandi, I learned the same thing -- and its companion "A principle is a rule."
California, thanks for raising the topic. We see that confusion often here.

One thing that I've noticed with my students, who come from all over the place (California, Texas, Maine, the Midwest, New York, New Jersey, etc.), is that the possessive and the plural have been switched: "The boys book's were taken." Or, to be more balletic: "Ashtons step's are very fast!"

#7 California

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 02:43 PM

It would take hours to list all of them, but a few more lost causes: may vs. might, it's vs. its

The principal-principle mistake is galling in this context, because we see so many principal dancers listed as "principles" nowadays.

Apologies to copy-editors everywhere! It's just that Robert Gottlieb is such a brilliant writer and editor (Knopf, New Yorker) that it's hard to imagine him making that mistake! (And I recommend reading that review in full. The section on Hubbard is hysterically funny. How many other critics could get away with some of the things he says?)

#8 dirac

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 04:11 PM

Proneness to errors of this nature doesn't necessarily imply anything about a writer's gifts or lack of same. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a lousy speller, might well have made the principle/principal error. That's what copy editors are for, and some writers require their ministrations more than others. But the careless aren't necessarily the untalented.

Copy editors can have their own weird biases and gaps in knowledge, but that's another thread.....

#9 angelica

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 04:48 PM

Copy editors can have their own weird biases and gaps in knowledge, but that's another thread.....

Not to mention that copy editors must adhere to the style of the publication, namely, "house style," e.g. Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Style, et al., which is not a decision of the copy editor, who is merely an employee, but, as you say, that's another thread. I promise, no more about copy editors.

#10 dirac

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 05:41 PM

Oh, copy editors and the restrictions under which they work are very much germane to the topic, angelica. I meant that it's a different set of beefs to discuss. :)

#11 sandik

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 10:21 PM

One thing that I've noticed with my students, who come from all over the place (California, Texas, Maine, the Midwest, New York, New Jersey, etc.), is that the possessive and the plural have been switched: "The boys book's were taken." Or, to be more balletic: "Ashtons step's are very fast!"


Oh, yes, this is a popular one!

#12 emilienne

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Posted 23 May 2013 - 11:57 PM

As a graduate instructor of undergraduates, sometimes in advanced composition courses, I can confirm (over my five years of teaching) that the inability to write clearly, manifest from the brainstorming stage all the way to proofreading stage combined with a lack of awareness that their inability to do so presents an obstacle to their success at university (and beyond), is becoming ever more widespread.

Or, to simplify the beast created by my monstrous subclauses: yes, you see a lot more bad writing/copy editing online, but I would argue that the fundamental skills are not taught effectively at a basic level.

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 24 May 2013 - 04:51 AM

As a graduate instructor of undergraduates, sometimes in advanced composition courses, I can confirm (over my five years of teaching) that the inability to write clearly, manifest from the brainstorming stage all the way to proofreading stage combined with a lack of awareness that their inability to do so presents an obstacle to their success at university (and beyond), is becoming ever more widespread.

Or, to simplify the beast created by my monstrous subclauses: yes, you see a lot more bad writing/copy editing online, but I would argue that the fundamental skills are not taught effectively at a basic level.


I think that is true. I have an odd window on education because, unlike most schools where a 10th grade teacher, say, would have a class that's mostly composed of children who have studied at that school since 7th grade, at least (so you can finger the inept teacher :) ) we have homeschooled children, children from public schools, private schools, and from Canada and England as well as about 15 different states and the errors are completely consistent.

As for copy editors, my absolute favorite copy editor story is of the one who helpfully added to a colleagule's mention of "Dying Swan": "a solo from 'Swan Lake'".

#14 Kathleen O'Connell

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Posted 24 May 2013 - 05:10 AM

As a graduate instructor of undergraduates, sometimes in advanced composition courses, I can confirm (over my five years of teaching) that the inability to write clearly, manifest from the brainstorming stage all the way to proofreading stage combined with a lack of awareness that their inability to do so presents an obstacle to their success at university (and beyond), is becoming ever more widespread.

Or, to simplify the beast created by my monstrous subclauses: yes, you see a lot more bad writing/copy editing online, but I would argue that the fundamental skills are not taught effectively at a basic level.


I was a graduate instructor of undergraduates w-a-a-a-y back in the late 70s and early 80s, and those basic skills weren't much in evidence then either. (Hmmm, should that be "70's and 80's" ... I can never remember ... ) I'm discouraged to learn that nothing has changed, although I'm not surprised either. Years later, when I'd moved on to a career in Finance, I happened to supervise a very bright and hard-working young man who couldn't write a clear sentence to save his life -- nor his career. Despite his real talents, it went nowhere, in part because we all got tired of re-writing his memos for him. Just handing it back to him and asking for a re-write accomplished nothing: he simply couldn't figure out what was wrong and how to fix it. (You might not think that good writing skills would be important in Finance, but trust me, they are. You often find yourself in the position of having to explain something complex to decision-makers who aren't conversant with your discipline and who a bit rusty in the math department to boot. Inevitably, they want a memo -- even though 15 minutes with you, some colored markers, and a whiteboard would be better.)

But I myself make silly "principle / principal"-type mistakes all the time because I've become too reliant on automatic completion and spell check. Oh, and because computer keyboards allow you to type faster than you can think. It took a bit longer to pound things out on a typewriter.

#15 kfw

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Posted 24 May 2013 - 07:31 AM

I have an easier time accepting spelling errors than errors of meaning and a weakness for needless, catchy jargon. Whoever wrote "principle" was really thinking "principal." But did the NY Times writer who wrote "day drinking is the most freewheeling time . . .," and the copy editor who let it stand, really think drinking is a time? That was just sloppy thinking. And NPR's Weekend Edition now refers to the day's lead story as the "cover" story. A cover is a physical object. Then again, "top" story, which is just as bad, has been in use for a long time.

And then again, I just wrote "there" for their."


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