Posted by: unlikelygrad | February 10, 2009

A pet peeve

I am one of those natural-born editor types, so I am very particular about how words are used. I’m sure most of my readers do this to a small extent: if, for example, you were to read the sentence “He is two old too do that,” it would probably drive you crazy. I’m the same way, but about zillions of words.

A big pet peeve of mine, having to do with chemists: misuse of “principle” vs. “principal”.

Simple definitions:

Principle: An idea. For example, the theory of relativity was a principle that radically changed physics.
Principal: Main. For example, the principal wage-earner in our house is my husband. (This spelling also refers to the administrative head of a school, but that’s irrelevant to the discussion.)

It’s amazing how frequently these are misused by chemists: I’ve even seen it done in textbooks. There are many principles (ideas) in chemistry, but, generally speaking, the word that is used in my science is principal (main):

Principal quantum number–the most important quantum number. I’ve seen at least two texts spell it as “principle quantum number” though. Sorry, folks. A quantum number is an idea, but that’s not what we’re trying to describe here.

Principal investigator–in other words, the main investigator/researcher on a project. If you can’t remember the right spelling, just call this person the PI, okay?

…and while we’re on the topics of pet peeves, if I ever catch you spelling words as “flourine” or “flourescent” I will whack you over the head with a foam bat.



  1. Damn. Chill out with the foam bat.

  2. UnlikelyGrad,

    I stumbled upon your blog after someone showed me this GradCafe website, and your passion for learning was incredibly inspiring. Frankly, it puts all of us young people to shame 🙂 I thought your entry on your pchem class was especially amusing also. Even as an undergraduate at Caltech- a stereotypical “nerds and overachievers” school, I’ve given more than my share of blank stares during class.

    I just want to wish you best of luck in your graduate pursuit. It is a shame that you did not apply to Caltech because we could really use someone who is so passionate about her field. But the schools on your list are also great choices. My hometown is actually Ann Arbor and I know that University of Michigan is wonderful and full of cool research opportunities.

  3. I’m into pet peeves and pet hates too – big time! If you’re interested, you might check out my cartoon blog at
    Cheers, Sheila

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