[ prin-suh-puhl ]
See synonyms for principal on
  1. first or highest in rank, importance, value, etc.; chief; foremost: The principal problem is a lack of money.She's the principal advisor on the council.

  2. of, of the nature of, or constituting principal or capital: Though our portfolio has seen losses, the principal investment remains untouched.

  1. Geometry. (of an axis of a conic) passing through the foci.

  1. a chief or head.

  2. the head or director of a school or, especially in England, a college.

  1. a person who takes a leading part in any activity, as a play; chief actor or doer.

  2. the first player of a division of instruments in an orchestra (excepting the leader of the first violins).

  3. something of principal or chief importance.

  4. Law.

    • a person who authorizes someone else, such as an agent, to represent them.

    • a person directly responsible for a crime, either as an actual perpetrator or as an abettor present at its commission.: Compare accessory (def. 3).

  5. a person primarily liable for an obligation, in contrast with an endorser, or the like.

  6. the main body of an estate, or the like, as distinguished from income.

  7. Finance. a capital sum, as distinguished from interest or profit.

  8. Music.

    • an organ stop.

    • the subject of a fugue.

  9. (in a framed structure) a member, as a truss, upon which adjacent or similar members depend for support or reinforcement.

  10. each of the combatants in a duel, as distinguished from the seconds.

Origin of principal

First recorded in 1250–1300; Middle English, from Latin prīncipālis “first, chief,” equivalent to prīncip- (see prince) + -ālis -al1

synonym study For principal

1. See capital1.

confusables note For principal

The noun principle and the noun and adjective principal are often confused. Although pronounced alike, the words are not interchangeable in writing. A principle is broadly “a rule of action or conduct” ( His overriding principle is greed ) or “a fundamental doctrine or tenet” ( Their principles do not permit the use of alcoholic beverages ). The adjective principal has the general sense “chief, first, foremost”: My principal objection is the cost of the project. The noun principal has among other meanings “the head or director of a school” ( The faculty supported the principal in her negotiations with the board ) and “a capital sum, as distinguished from interest or profit” ( The monthly payments go mostly for interest, leaving the principal practically untouched ).

Other words for principal

Opposites for principal

Other words from principal

  • prin·ci·pal·ship, noun
  • un·der·prin·ci·pal, noun

Words that may be confused with principal

  • principal , principle (see usage note at the current entry) Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023

How to use principal in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for principal


/ (ˈprɪnsɪpəl) /

  1. first in importance, rank, value, etc; chief

  2. denoting or relating to capital or property as opposed to interest, etc

  1. a person who is first in importance or directs some event, action, organization, etc

  2. (in Britain) a civil servant of an executive grade who is in charge of a section

  1. law

    • a person who engages another to act as his agent

    • an active participant in a crime

    • the person primarily liable to fulfil an obligation

  2. the head of a school or other educational institution

  3. (in Scottish schools) a head of department

  4. finance

    • capital or property, as contrasted with the income derived from it

    • the original amount of a debt on which interest is calculated

  5. a main roof truss or rafter

  6. music

    • the chief instrumentalist in a section of the orchestra

    • one of the singers in an opera company

    • either of two types of open diapason organ stops, one of four-foot length and pitch and the other of eight-foot length and pitch

  7. the leading performer in a play

Origin of principal

C13: via Old French from Latin principālis chief, from princeps chief man, prince


Derived forms of principal

  • principalship, noun

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for principal


The original amount of money lent, not including profits and interest.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.