Principle vs. principal

I am  your principle...uh, principal...I think...

I am your principle! Uh, principal...I think...

Here comes one that has stymied people for generations — the age-old duel between principle and principal. And why not? One is a rule you’d rather not follow and the other is a person you’d rather not run into in the hall. As always, there’s a way to keep the two separate, just like Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck: one here, one over there.  But first, how about some definitions?

Principal means first, most important, chief or head.

Principle means a law, rule or doctrine.

Both are nouns, but as you can see, principle is an idea and principal is usually a person. So here comes Conan’s mnemonic device for how to tell the two apart: The principal is your pal.

Let’s make some plurals

Punctuational danger, Will Robinson!

I’m about to reveal a well-guarded secret to you. Are you sitting down? All strapped in? Ready to know a universal truth? Here it is, forthwith:

It’s okay to place an s after proper nouns that end in y to pluralize them. I hereby give you permission. You have Conan’s word that it’s correct. Can you dig it?

What’s not correct, folks (and you know who you are), is to place an apostrophe followed by an s to pluralize, like so:  The Hennessy’s. Apostrophe  s either renders the proper noun possessive or turns it into a contraction. (In other words, “The Hennessy’s” doesn’t mean “the Hennessy family.” It means “that belongs to the Hennessy” or “the Hennessy is,” and you really shouldn’t refer to yourself in the third person like that. You’re not Bob Dole, after all…Are you?) Apostrophe  s never makes any word plural. Easy enough to remember, right?

Did you receive (or send) any holiday greetings addressed like this?

From the Hennessys

Probably not, because what your visual cortex sees when you let an s follow a y is this: Hen – eh – sis, not Hen – eh – sees. (I know. There, there. Shh. Shhhhh.) This physical reaction to the pairing of these two letters is akin to yanking your hand away from a hot stove. Danger, danger! Philosophically, letting a y and an s stand together is tantamount to all-out, cats-sleeping-with-dogs anarchy.

The problem, dear Brutus, lies in the fact that you remember your phonics all too clearly. Well, I’m sure your first grade teacher Mrs. Puffnstuff is very proud that you’ve clung like a leech to this sort of thinking. But now you must let go your aversion. Come into the light. All are welcome. All welcome.

Capital vs. Capitol

Capital/capitol. Boy, this one’s a pain, isn’t it? Because it almost seems–well, unpatriotic or something not to know the difference.

But fear not. Sometimes knowing a word’s origin helps us to remember how it’s used. For me, this is one of those times.

The word capitol comes from the Roman Capitoline Hill (Mons Capitolinus), the highest of the seven hills of Rome, on which the temple for the Capitoline Triad stood. (What? You’ve forgotten the three Roman gods of the Capitoline Triad? For shame!)

The similarity between capitol and capital is ostensibly a coincidence, but I’m guessing it was a malicious attempt by ancient people to make us moderns feel like morons (it’s working, I’m sure you’d agree).

So capitol applies only to the building, just like the temple building, the Capitolium, on Capitoline Hill (Really. I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

Capital refers to the seat of a government and all the other uses of the word.

(In case you’re still not getting it, say the various Roman/Latin words–Capitoline, Capitolium, Capitolinus–aloud. You can’t help but pronounce the long “o.”)

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 18 Sep. 2007.


‘Tis the Season to Send Out Annoying Holiday Greetings


Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of Americans like the prospect of writing Christmas greetings. I should know–as the family wordsmith, it falls to me each year to crank out a two-page missive that’s engaging, informative and treads that fine line between connecting with friends and family–and smarmy bragging. Continue reading

Won the Science Fair, Flunked the Spelling Bee

From the website of a Sanford, Fla., pharmaceutical company specializing in dermatology products:

Our criterion for marketing a product is simple:

  • It must work better then any other product
  • It must be safer then any other product
  • Patients will be able to afford it

Continue reading

When Sports Writing Goes Very, Very Wrong

This isn't Mark Spitz.

I was surfing America Online the other day when I came across the tantalizing headline Worst Sports Comebacks. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, so I clicked on the link — and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but this gem of an entry:

12) Mark Spitz: Twenty years after winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics and spurned on by a million-dollar offer from filmmaker Bud Greenspan, the swimmer seeked to qualify for the 1992 U.S. team. Greenspan filmed Spitz failing to qualify for a return to the Olympics.

Okay, I can almost forgive the spurn/spur confusion. It falls in the same category as the flaunt/flout controversy (which I intend to explore in a future issue of Fun with Conan The Grammarian). But…seeked? I mean, seeked? Where, oh, where was the editor? And where, oh, where was the dictionary?

Most of the time, I mind my own business, laugh and move on. But this time I was spurred to action. I sent a helpful email to AOL Sports pointing out the mistakes. You’ll be thrilled (and amazed) to know I wasn’t in the least sarcastic or snarky about it. And now, four days later (as of this writing), the errors remain. The only thing I can figure is that AOL Sports has either sent their writing jobs off-shore or subcontracted to Wee Cutie-Pies Preschool.

Moral: Employ an editor. Use a dictionary. End of lecture.

Even Proofreaders Need Proofreaders

A new client came the publicist’s way, one that promised to be lucrative. In her excitement, the publicist dashed off an incisive, newsworthy press release and threw it in the mail post-haste.

Before the publicist had a chance to follow up with the media, the client called and left a message on her voice mail. He’d received his copy of the news release in the mail. He would no longer require her services, he said.

Because she’d misspelled his business’s name throughout the news release.

Oh, the shame! The horror! The lost income! Continue reading