The principal rule: stand by your principles

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen good business writers make basic mistakes with two words in the English language. And if good writers, including people who regularly publish on the web are making these mistakes I can only imagine the millions of not-so-good writers who must be making these errors as they write corporate email and develop other internal correspondence.

It’s tough to use these words the right way, however, because the English language is made up of multiple languages– French, Latin, Norse and German. As a result, English is a mosaic that prizes memorization as much as logic. And on the surface there doesn’t seem to be a consistent logic to these two words. What words am I referring to?

Principal and Lead.

And it is easy to get them confused with “principle” and “led.” Here are two real world examples from a quick internet search that show how easily they can get mangled:

How “Principle” gets misused:

“The method of distribution is direct sales that may be performed by an actual sales force, but in many service businesses it is performed by the principles of the firm.”

The word “principles” should actually be “principals”, who are defined as people with important roles or decision-making power. Here is the link if you wish to see the context in which it was used: evancarmichael.com

Editor’s note: This morning I witnessed another example of the principle/ principal confusion, only this time it was in The Guardian of all places, and it happened in successive sentences, which is very hard to do. In an article describing the paper’s own history, The Guardian noted how it pledged to uphold “principles laid down in the founder’s will.” So far so good. But in the very next sentence, they misspell the word, referring to “principals” instead.

The Guardian achieved national and international recognition under the editorship of CP Scott, who held the post for 57 years from 1872. Scott bought the paper in 1907 following the death of Taylor’s son, and pledged that the principles laid down in the founder’s will would be upheld by retaining the independence of the newspaper. CP Scott outlined those principals in a much-quoted article written to celebrate the centenary of the paper: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred… The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard.”

Here is the link: The Guardian – history

How “Lead” gets misused

Now let’s turn to the issue of led versus lead. Led sounds the way it is spelled. Lead, on the other hand, can be pronounced two different ways, with a hard e or a soft e–which leads to the confusion.

“He lead a team in Ottawa as Regional Director, providing investment management, estate & trust as well as private banking solutions to high net worth clients and families.”

Led is the past participle of the verb lead, and should have been used in the example above. He leads his current team but he led his former team. Here is the link if you wish to see the context in which it was used: our-people/client-services-team

As we travel the sometimes tortuous roads of the English language there are other potholes to watch out for. For example, “your” versus “you’re”,  and “it’s” versus “its”, and “they’re” versus “their.” I could go into detail on each but since this post was intended to be just a quick heads up (not an intensive grammar lesson) perhaps they are best left for another day.

And yes, no one is perfect. I’m sure there is a typo to be found somewhere in my post, so feel free to point it (or them) out. But then again, typos are a different kind of mistake than a misspelling. They arise from seeing what we want to see instead of what is actually there for all to see. The misspelling of a common word, especially for a newspaper like the Guardian, is not a problem of perception but a lack of awareness.

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