Sunday, May 8, 2011

Principle vs. principal and may vs. might

Today I'm going to gripe about two errors in usage I've seen multiple times in the past couple of weeks. The first is failing to distinguish between principal and principle. The principal is the headmaster of the school. Your principal player is the most important member of your team.

A principle, on the other hand, is a fundamental rule, doctrine, or guide for conduct. It should never be used as an adjective. So let's not read any more LA Times stories chiding the Lakers for the way they "abandon well-worn principals," unless they mean someone is leaving graying and exhausted headmasters by the side of the road.

My other complaint is a little more subtle. Many writers don't seem to recognize that the helping verb "may" has a past tense, and that past tense is "might." For example:

He may come to the party.
He said he might come.

If you don't finish your paper, you may flunk the course.
If you hadn't finished your paper, you might have flunked the course.

James thinks Sarah may be the love of his life.
James thought Sarah might be the love of his life.

I think it's the second example where I've been seeing the most errors, both in children's books and in journalism. People write something like, "If Gore had won the election, we may not have become entangled in the Iraq war." NO! We might not have become entangled.

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