principal

1 of 2

adjective

prin·​ci·​pal ˈprin(t)-s(ə-)pəl How to pronounce principal (audio)
-sə-bəl
1
: most important, consequential, or influential : chief
the principal ingredient
the region's principal city
2
: of, relating to, or constituting principal or a principal (see principal entry 2)
principally
ˈprin(t)-sə-p(ə-)lē How to pronounce principal (audio)
-sə-bə-lē
-splē
adverb
Principle vs. Principal: Usage Guide

Evidence of confusion between principle and principal can be found even in publications overseen by professional editors. To keep these words straight, remember that principle functions only as a noun, and in its most common uses refers to a basic rule or law, as in

a guiding principle

or

a matter of principle.

If you are looking for an adjective form of this word, you must use principled, as in

taking a principled stand.

Principal functions as both a noun and an adjective. The noun has various meanings referring to someone with controlling authority

the school principal

or in a leading position

the ballet's two principals

, but also has meanings relating to finance, law, and architecture. As an adjective, principal typically means "most important," as in

the principal reason.

principal

2 of 2

noun

prin·​ci·​pal ˈprin(t)-s(ə-)pəl How to pronounce principal (audio)
-sə-bəl
1
: a person who has controlling authority or is in a leading position: such as
a
: a chief or head man or woman
b
: the chief executive officer of an educational institution
c
: one who engages another to act as an agent subject to general control and instruction
specifically : the person from whom an agent's authority derives
d
: the chief or an actual participant in a crime
e
: the person primarily or ultimately liable on a legal obligation
f
: a leading performer : star
2
: a matter or thing of primary importance: such as
a(1)
: a capital sum earning interest, due as a debt, or used as a fund
(2)
: the corpus of an estate, portion, devise, or bequest
b
: the construction that gives shape and strength to a roof and is usually one of several trusses
broadly : the most important member of a piece of framing
principalship noun

Example Sentences

Adjective If any suspect that Griswold was exaggerating, they should reflect on the fact that the principal Supreme Court case justifying the invocation of the national security privilege was based on a governmental lie. Garry Wills, New York Review of Books, 12 Feb. 2009
Following the agreement, the four principal tobacco companies—Philip Morris, R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard—raised their prices more than 45 cents per pack. The costs of the settlement, as predicted, were passed on to consumers. Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century, 2007
Their principal industry was the manufacture, in a long, low, mostly-wooden, two-story factory, of cold cream. Frederick Busch, Too Late American Boyhood Blues, 1984
Vegetables are the principal ingredients in this soup. She is the principal cellist of the orchestra. Noun the new high school principal One of the principals in the assassination plot has been arrested. See More
Recent Examples on the Web
Adjective
The team's principal owner, John Ingram, has family ancestry in Wisconsin. Jr Radcliffe, Journal Sentinel, 2 Mar. 2023 Christopher Martin, the orchestra’s principal trumpet, who helped lead the search for a music director, embraced him. Javier C. Hernández, New York Times, 21 Feb. 2023 The club last entered the season with a payroll in the top half of MLB clubs in 2004, Kendrick’s first season as principal owner and managing general partner. The Arizona Republic, 20 Feb. 2023 Regardless of what the orchestra plays, Muñoz consistently holds his musicians to a high standard, associate principal trumpet player Ben Nguyen said. Jose R. Gonzalez, AZCentral.com, 4 Dec. 2022 Anthony played in the famed Canadian Brass from 2000 to 2003, and joined the DSO in 2004, becoming its principal trumpet a few years later. Dallas News, 13 Oct. 2022 As managing principal owner of the Washington Nationals, Lerner helped resurrect a franchise that, in its final years as the Montreal Expos, had bedeviled Major League Baseball with poor results on the field and in public support. Laurence Arnold, Bloomberg.com, 13 Feb. 2023 His wife, as well as his children and their spouses, are all principal owners of the Nationals. Richard Goldstein, New York Times, 13 Feb. 2023 The Celtics and Red Sox — whose principal owner, John W. Henry, owns The Boston Globe — weren’t the only with ties to professional sports to give to Healey. Matt Stout, BostonGlobe.com, 6 Feb. 2023
Noun
Panelists include former mayor and CEO of Economic Mobility Pathways Kim Janey, waterfront expert Vivien Li, associate principal of urban design at CBT Architects Devanshi Purohit, and president of the Boston branch of NAACP Tanisha M. Sullivan. Abigail Lee, BostonGlobe.com, 5 Mar. 2023 The principal of his school asked him to sing the national anthem on the intercom for the school one day and posted the video online with his mother's permission. Ana Rocío Álvarez Bríñez, The Courier-Journal, 3 Mar. 2023 School safety concerns came up during a Monday oversight hearing of the city’s education agencies, where Patrice Billups, principal of KIPP D.C. Michael Brice-saddler, Washington Post, 2 Mar. 2023 Byron Sigcho-Lopez faced a tough head-to-head challenge from Aida Flores, an assistant principal at Darwin Elementary School who also ran in 2019. John Byrne, Chicago Tribune, 28 Feb. 2023 Muhammad Afzal Raza, the principal of the local high school, says that many residents cannot even provide their children with pens and paper. Hasan Ali, The Christian Science Monitor, 23 Feb. 2023 At the end, a resiliency champion is awarded with a gift card to Starbucks and lunch with the principal of their school. Zenger News, Forbes, 21 Feb. 2023 In December, Christopher Christensen, the principal of Newland Elementary School in Huntington Beach, was found dead after reportedly jumping from the same Mickey & Friends parking structure. Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times, 20 Feb. 2023 Jerone Wiggins, principal at Hayes K-8, has seen it all. Kyra Miles, al, 8 Feb. 2023 See More

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'principal.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

Word History

Etymology

Adjective and Noun

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin principalis, from princip-, princeps

First Known Use

Adjective

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Noun

14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of principal was in the 14th century

Dictionary Entries Near principal

Cite this Entry

“Principal.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/principal. Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

Kids Definition

principal

1 of 2 adjective
prin·​ci·​pal ˈprin(t)-s(ə-)pəl How to pronounce principal (audio)
-sə-bəl
: most important : chief
the principal ingredient of the stew
principally
-ē How to pronounce principal (audio)
prin(t)-splē
adverb

principal

2 of 2 noun
1
a
: a leading or most important person
b
: the head of a school
2
: a sum of money that is placed to earn interest, is owed as a debt, or is used as a fund

Legal Definition

principal

1 of 2 adjective
prin·​ci·​pal ˈprin-sə-pəl How to pronounce principal (audio)
1
: being the main or most important, consequential, or influential
their principal place of business
the principal obligor
2
: of, relating to, or constituting principal or a principal
the principal amount of the loan

principal

2 of 2 noun
1
: a participant in an action or transaction especially having control or authority
the principals of a business
: as
a
: one who engages another to act for him or her subject to his or her general control or instruction : one from whom an agent derives authority to act compare fiduciary
b
: one who commits a crime or instigates, encourages, or assists another to commit it especially when constructively or actually present see also accessory sense 1
principal in the first degree
: a principal under common law who intentionally commits and is actually or constructively present at the commission of a crime
principal in the second degree
: a principal under common law who aids, encourages, or commands another to commit a crime and is actually or constructively present when it is committed
c
: the person primarily liable on a legal obligation or one who will ultimately bear the burden because of a duty to indemnify another as distinguished from one (as an endorser, surety, or guarantor) who is secondarily liable
2
: a capital sum earning interest, due as a debt, or used as a fund
shall receive the income from the trust until age 18, and thereafter the principal
payments shall be applied first to interest and then to principal
also : the main body of an estate, devise, or bequest

More from Merriam-Webster on principal

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