August 4, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: principal/principle & in which, where, or when

Posted in or when, principal & principle at 6:50 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1 : Principal/principle

A sharp-eyed colleague forwarded a letter from the Warner Brothers location managers to let us know that the filming of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, currently using the working title of Magnus Rex, will disrupt traffic in Oakland and make travel to and from work extremely difficult for a while, but not to worry because the location managers “are delighted to bring some economic benefit to the area through our activity.” As annoying as I found this missive, that is not why my colleague sent it, and that is not why I am writing about it.

It is this line that compels me to write:

“As you know, two of our principle filming locations have been Carnegie Mellon University’s Mellon Institute as well as their Software Engineering Institute, both located on the corner of 5th Avenue and Dithridge Street.”

Aaargh. This gives me an excuse to remind you of the error that is my pet peeve (as if I need an excuse)—the mangling and mingling of principal and principle.

Garner calls is a common blunder, and he’s right; it is common, and it is a blunder.

Let’s get this straight once and for all.

Principal is almost always an adjective except when you are talking about the head of a school or other concern or when you are talking about a sum of money (there are a couple of other instances in which principal is used as a noun, but they are less common). Principal, the adjective, means foremost or main.

Now, this is important, so remember this: Principle is always a noun and is never an adjective, NEVER, not ever. So, you must never have principle filming locations, and you can never be a principle investigator (although I would encourage you to be a principled investigator). Principle means rule, law, or tenet.  The adjective ALWAYS has a ‘d’ on the end and means having high principles. Principle is always a noun and NEVER an adjective.

If you remember this, you can’t go wrong. If it sounds like I am yelling, it’s because this is one gaffe that really gets my goat.

So, investigators, you aim to be the foremost or main investigator, that is, the principal investigator.

That’s enough on this subject today.

Tip 2: Where, in which, or when

When I was writing the tip on principal versus principle, I first wrote this:

 (there are a couple of other instances when principal is used as a noun, but they are less common)

I then changed it to this:

 (there are a couple of other instances where principal is used as a noun, but they are less common)

And in the final version, I ended up with this:

 (there are a couple of other instances in which principal is used as a noun, but they are less common)

So, I thought a tip on when to use where, in which, and when might be a good idea.

First of all, they are all correctly used. In large part, the three can be used interchangably—it just depends on the context. In which is the most formal choice and should be used in manuscripts and grant proposals. Both where and when are less formal. If I had written the there’re instead of there are, I would probably have used the more colloquial where in the final version in keeping with the informality.

Generally, when choosing between where and when in informal contexts, use when if you are talking about time and where if you are talking about location.

This is the street where we first met.

If ever there was year when angry protestors let their voices be heard, it was surely 2011.

That’s about it for where, in which, and when.

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