I write PRINCIPLE you write PRINCIPAL

From “E.P.A. Challenges Texas Over Rules on Emissions” (NYT December 23):

The regulations will in principal curb emissions by requiring plans to use the best available technology to control them.

Yes, yes, that should be PRINCIPLE, not PRINCIPAL (and it’s been corrected in the on-line version). One of the most common spelling errors in English, in both directions. (When I served on boards at granting agencies, we used to get huge numbers of grant proposals listing PRINCIPLE INVESTIGATOR(S), to the point where I had colleagues who half-seriously suggested that such proposals should be summarily rejected for spelling errors. Surely a disproportionate punishment.)

PRINCIPAL/PRINCIPLE is one of those irritating details of English orthography that in fact makes no effective difference in comprehensibility but is maintained through a fetish for correctness — there are a number of these — and elicits orthographic rage from some people, who feel that if we “give way” on these points then we’re on the slide to chaos and the death of the language: according to them, it’s our duty to chide and punish those who violate the orthographic canon (especially those who “ought to know better”, like writers and editors on the NYT).

As I’ve said many times, the deep sadness of these attitudes lies in their focus on things of absolutely no consequence at the cost of attention to genuinely consequential matters.

Yes, I noticed the spelling in the Times, but to tell the truth, I don’t fuckin’ care.

2 Responses to “I write PRINCIPLE you write PRINCIPAL”

  1. Chris Ambidge Says:

    “Yes, I noticed the spelling in the Times, but to tell the truth, I don’t fuckin’ care.”

    I would dispute your assertion. If you REALLY “didn’t fuckin’ care”, then you would barely have noticed the [mis-]spelling, one way or the other, and you certainly wouldn’t have remarked on it.

    Instead, you made it into an entire blog post. That activity doesn’t equate to “don’t fuckin’ care”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Of course I noticed it. I’ve been editing copy for 55 years, since I was 15; I’ve been trained as a gatekeeper, and I can’t undo the attentional focus that that training has produced in me. That doesn’t mean I actually care about this particular point.

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