October 30, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: because & since with a touch of as, principal & principle

Posted in as, because, principal & principle, since at 8:22 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: because & since with a touch of as

On the bus to work on Monday, I was thinking about what to write about in this week’s WLUT. I was toying with the idea of ‘because’ and ‘since’ but wasn’t sure if that was relevant for this group. Well, lo and behold, I was reviewing a paper on Monday and saw this

Since attending physicians may provide care in more then one clinic,…

Serendipity, I thought, and that’s how I arrived at this week’s first tip.

‘Since’ is a tricky word; while by definition it is associated with a sense of time passing, it is often used as a synonym for ‘because.’

Since I was unable to get a ticket, I couldn’t go to the theater.

This is okay for spoken conversations and casual writing, but it should not be used in this manner in formal or academic writing. I say this not to be fussy or rigid in my role as grammarian, but because, in scientific writing, one of our goals is to be precise, and ‘since’ is ambiguous. It is ambiguous because it can connote either causality or time elapsing. Take this example:

Since I graduated first in my class, I am considering numerous job offers.

The above example could mean either ‘In the time that has passed since graduating ‘ or ‘ as a result of graduating first.’ This is the type of ambiguity we strive to avoid in our formal writing.

So, the moral of this story is: Use ‘since’ meaning ‘because’ in casual writing and conversation as much as your heart desires, but in formal writing, stick with ‘because’ for precision’s sake.

I mentioned a touch of ‘as’ and here it is: ‘As’ suffers from the same ambiguity as ‘since’ and is another word that should not be used in scientific writing.

In researching this, I found a number of discussions around whether ‘as’ is more casual or more formal than ‘since.’ Opinions seem to be split, and I don’t have strong feelings one way or another nor do I have the inclination to spend time worrying about it. So, user’s choice.


A reader wrote:

What about principal and principle?

Gosh, I thought, I did that a long, long time ago. After all, anyone who has known me more than five minutes knows that this is my number one pet peeve. I even take a time out in every talk I give, no matter what the topic – whether it be about Working with the IRB, Making PowerPoint Presentations, Working with Long Documents, whatever – to remind people about the difference between principal and principle. Heck, I can do this in my sleep. So, of course I’ve talked about this, probably in the very first post. And then, I checked. I went to the website <https://languagetips.wordpress.com> and checked out all the topics we’ve talked about – all 102 of them, and you know what? There’s no category of ‘principal & principle.’ Unbelievable. So, here’s to making up for lost time.

Tip 2: Principle & principal

A principle is a tenet, a belief, a creed, or a rule.

Being a moral person, she followed her highly ethical principles.

As a noun, the principal is the main, lead, or chief person or thing, ergo, Principal Investigator.

As principal, she has access to all of the important documents.

That’s all there is to it. Easy. And the notion of Principal Investigator is incredibly important to us and to NIH. Why then, do I see this misspelled in grant proposals and even in requests for grant applications and Program Announcements on close to a daily basis? I don’t understand.

As a kid, I learned to remember the distinction by remembering that ‘my principal is a prince of a pal.’ And since a pal is a person, that means ‘principal’ refers, often times, to a person. I don’t know – it worked for me.

So say it softly, but say it often, ‘I want to be a principal investigator.’ ‘I want to be a principal investigator.’ ‘I want to be a principal investigator.’ And with any luck, you will be a principled principal investigator.

A final word:

Folks, please get out and vote next week. This is such an important election, and we want to be part of it and have our voices heard.

Now, it’s a good idea to be prepared: the lines are probably going to be very long. Bring your ipod, a book, a laptop, a friend. Pack a snack. I’m serious; I’ve heard that some of the early voters stood in line for up to four hours. The important thing is not to give up. This is an incredibly significant and historic event – no matter what happens, and we all need to be part of it.



  1. galen said,

    What about the use of “then” in the first example?

    Shouldn’t it be “than”?

  2. debbie said,

    Of course, you are right. Thanks.

  3. pamela said,

    Hi — My 11-year old son, reading Tip #2 over my shoulder, pointed out that one could be a Principle Investigator if one is an investigator of principles.

  4. Tim said,

    We have a Principle Programmer at my company, yet she doesn’t even work in HR.

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