The difference between “principal” and “principle”

These words are pronounced the same way, but their meanings are different.

Principal” can be an adjective and a noun.

It is most commonly used as an adjective, meaning “main” or “most important”:

Her principal area of responsibility is economic policy.

The principal reason why we cannot accept his application is because he is not a citizen of an EU member state.

As a noun, the most common meaning of “principal” is:

  • Someone who holds a position of leadership, especially the headmaster/headmistress of a school

In the fields of business and law “principal” also has the following meanings:

  • A person who authorises another to act as a representative, e.g. an agent or an attorney is authorised by a principal
  • A person with the main responsibility for an obligation, as opposed to that person’s surety or guarantor
  • A person who commits a criminal offence

“Principal” also has financial meanings:

  • The capital or main part of a financial holding, as opposed to the interest or revenue it earns
  • The amount of a debt upon which interest is calculated, i.e. the amount borrowed, excluding interest

Principle” is a noun.

It has two related meanings:

  • A basic idea or rule that explains or controls how something works or happens – the principles of democracy, the hereditary principle, the principle of electro-magnetic conduction
  • A moral rule or standard of good behaviour – He is a man of principle; That woman has no principles; I do not eat meat on principle; In principle I agree with you
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How to use initials and acronyms

Non-native English speakers often find it difficult to know when to use “a”, “the” or no article with initials and acronyms.

The key is to know what the initials mean. If the initials are a proper noun (name), then you should not use an article (this follows the rule concerning article use with names). If the initials are descriptive, then you will probably need to use either “the” or “a”.

For example, company names do not usually require an article, e.g.: BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke), GE (General Electric), GM (General Motors), LG (Lucky Goldstar), CNN (Cable News Network). Neither do initials describing people, e.g. JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy).

But if the initials are a description of e.g. countries, authorities or organisations, you should use “the”, e.g.: the USA, the UK, the UN, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), the EU (European Union), the ECJ (European Court of Justice), the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe)

An exception here is the BBC, which we say even though the BBC is a company. “BBC” stands for “British Broadcasting Corporation”, so the name acts like a description of a corporation. General Electric is a corporation too, so we could equally as well say the GE corporation, but according to convention, we just refer to it by name – GE.

Acronyms are pronounceable names made up of a series of initials. Thus, as proper nouns, they do not need an article. E.g. NATO, NASA, UNESCO, OPEC, VAT

“A” or “an”?

Although we write a limited liability company, we write an LLC.

The choice of “a” or “an” is determined by the pronunciation of the initials (LLC is pronounced el-el-see, so, as it starts with a vowel sound, we must use “an”).

Other examples: a marketing authorisation holder becomes an MAH, a special purpose vehicle becomes an SPV

As acronyms are pronounced as words, we say, e.g. a NATO resolution, an OPEC member

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How to be polite

Non-native English speakers sometimes sound abrupt and impolite to native English speakers. This is because they often use language that is too direct, and does not have the correct “distance” from the hearer or reader. It is therefore important to use the correct polite expressions.

You can make your speech and writing more polite by using the following:

  • modal verbs (such as would, could, might)
  • different verb tenses
  • polite conditionals
  • the passive voice
  • negative questions

Modal verbs

DIRECT: Please send me the documents.
POLITE: Could you please send me the documents?

DIRECT: If you want to send such a letter we can draft it for you.
POLITE: If you would like to send such a letter we would be happy to draft it for you.

DIRECT: You should consider the following course of action.
POLITE: You might like to consider the following course of action.

Changing the tense of the verb

The present simple tense is very direct. Choosing a different tense increases the distance and softens the meaning of your words.

Use a progressive verb form rather than a simple verb form:

I am looking forward to hearing from you.
I am assuming that the rest of the documentation will follow.

Use a past tense instead of the present (present meaning remains):

What did you say your name was? (i.e. What is your name?)

Use a past progressive (present meaning remains):

I was wondering whether you would like our advice on this new issue that has arisen.
I was thinking that you might like to meet the head of our Employment team.

Use the future tense (present meaning remains):

I hope you won’t mind if I copy Richard onto this email.

Polite conditionals

These use modal verbs and the past tense. Again, present meaning remains. They can be used for requests, advice or recommendations:

I would appreciate it if you arranged for immediate payment.
I would be grateful if you signed and returned the document by the end of the week.
It would be more secure if you changed the password more frequently.
Due to the complexity of the matter it would be best if you asked a tax advisor to take a look at it.

You can also use a modal verb in the “if” clause (this is an exception to the standard rule on conditionals):

I would appreciate it if you could send it back as soon as possible.

NOTE: Remember to include “it” in the phrase “I would appreciate it if…”

The passive voice

The passive voice is an impersonal verb form which creates distance (and avoids making accusations):

DIRECT (active voice): It seems that you made an error in the calculations.
POLITE (passive voice): It seems that an error was made in the

Negative questions

This is a way of softening advice or recommendations. These are more commonly used in speech than in writing.

Negative questions are a diplomatic way of speaking with clients and superiors.

DIRECT: We’ve met before.
POLITE: Haven’t we met before?

DIRECT: We should include this point in the statement of claim.
POLITE: Shouldn’t we include this point in the statement of claim?

DIRECT: This clause needs renegotiating.
POLITE: Don’t you think this clause should be renegotiated? (+ passive)

DIRECT: We should go with scenario 2.
POLITE: Wouldn’t it be better if we went with scenario 2? (+ conditional)

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The differences (and similarities) between “compose” and “comprise”

Non-native speakers of English are not the only ones who regularly confuse these words or use them incorrectly. Unfortunately, native speakers are equally guilty of mistakes.

Here’s how to use them correctly:

  • “compose” – to make up, i.e. the parts compose the whole
  • “be composed of” – to be made up of, i.e. the whole is composed of its parts
  • “composes of” – INCORRECT


  • “comprise” – to be made up of, i.e. the whole comprises its parts (opposite to “compose”)
  • “be comprised of” – INCORRECT, but commonly used by native speakers to have the same meaning as “consist of” and “be composed of”
  • “comprises of” – INCORRECT

Here are some examples of usage:

  • 24 lawyers, including 6 partners, compose the Energy Department.
  • A hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC compose the apartment.
  • 28 member states compose the European Union.

The above examples, although technically correct, would sound a little strange to a native English speaker. It would be better to write the following:

  • The Energy Department is composed of  24 lawyers, including 6 partners.
  • The apartment is composed of a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.
  • The European Union is composed of 28 member states.

In the above examples “consists of” would work as well as “is composed of”. Alternatively you can use “comprise”:

  • The Energy Department comprises  24 lawyers, including 6 partners.
  • The apartment comprises a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.
  • The European Union comprises 28 member states.

Remember the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. So avoid this common mistake:

  • 28 member states comprise the European Union.

I also sometimes see “comprise” used when the writer should use “include” or “contain”.

Please note that a special non-liability clause is comprised in the Lease.
Please note that the lease contains / includes a special non-liability clause.
The installation was not comprised in the Council of Ministers’ Regulation.
The installation was not included in the Council of Ministers’ Regulation.

Remember that “comprise” has an exhaustive meaning, i.e. it refers to all the parts.

  • The apartment comprises a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.

In the above example the list of rooms is complete. There are no more rooms in the apartment.

“Include” or “contain”, on the other hand, are not exhaustive, i.e. they do not refer to all the parts.

  • The apartment includes a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.

In this example the apartment may contain more rooms.

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The difference between “consist of” and “consist in”

Until relatively recently I was not aware of the difference between “consist of” and “consist in”. This is probably because among native English speakers “consist in” is very infrequently used in comparison to “consist of”, which is relatively common. In fact it wasn’t until I moved to Poland that I learned the difference.

Here it is:

  • “consist of” – to have as its component parts or elements, i.e. the whole consists of its parts
  • “consist in” – to have as its essential features, i.e. the whole is defined by its parts

Here are some examples of usage:

  • The book consists of 50 chapters.
  • The activity carried out at the plant consists of precision cutting, lathe work and heat moulding.
  • The problem consists in  his failure to cooperate.
  • The defence consists in  discrediting the claimant.

It’s no accident that I only learned the difference between the two phrases in Poland. In Polish the difference is made clear by two very different phrases – and as a result Poles are far better at explaining the difference than English people:

składać się z = consist of (literally “to be made up of”)

polegać na = consist in (literally “to rely on”)

Be aware that these days “consist in” is rarely seen in English writing outside of dusty philosophical texts. To many people it can sound strange or old fashioned, or simply wrong.

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Misused English terms in EU publications

There is a general opinion among non-native speakers of English that the language of official publications is correct and may be used as a model to follow. Unfortunately, when it comes to many official EU documents, this opinion is wrong. Due to the multi-linguistic nature of the EU and the fact that EU documentation has very frequently been translated, many words and phrases that you find in English versions of official publications are incorrect, incorrectly used or even made up.

Fortunately, help is at hand. Jeremy Gardner, a translator at the European Court of Auditors, has compiled a list of misused English terms in EU publications. You can find a link to the list here:

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The difference between “in future” and “in the future”

Consider these examples:

You should be more careful in future.

In the future we plan to make significant investments in Romania and Bulgaria.

In the first example “in future” means “from now on and always”. It is often used in the context of changing habits or behaviour, and may form part of a reprimand (such as in the above example).

In the second example “in the future” means “at/from some future point in time”.

“In future” is used mainly in British English. Speakers of US English may not be familiar with it. They tend to use “in the future” for both meanings.


More examples:

He reassured shareholders that the bank would in future focus on services for individuals and small businesses.

Trade relations between member countries will in future be conducted primarily on a bilateral basis.

He said that similar treaties with Latvia and Lithuania would be concluded in the future.

I would like to know whether you think the project will be profitable in the future.


Here are a couple of similar phrases that work like “in the future”:

We expect a bill on this subject to be submitted to Parliament in the near future.

I’m looking forward to meeting you again in the not-too-distant future.


You should be aware that native speakers’ use of these terms may not always conform to these rules. In particular, British English speakers may use “in future” when they should use “in the future”.

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