Precede vs. Proceed

By Mark Nichol

Lazy pronunciation can wreak havoc on the language as word pairs like precede and proceed become confused. These similar-looking and similar-sounding terms, however, though not antonyms, face in opposite directions.

The origin of the former word is the Latin term praecedere (“go before”), while the latter stems from the Latin word procedere (“go forward, advance”). Interestingly, however, the prefixes share a sense: Pre- and pro- can both mean “before,” though pro- usually signals “in favor of.”

Each word is part of a family of inflections and terms based on it: One writes, for example, that a rainstorm preceded snowfall later that night, or that the preceding chapter of a book is longer than the one that follows it.

Precedent refers to a situation that serves as an exemplar for others that follow. It’s employed formally in law to refer to a rule or principle that serves as a reference for judgments in cases similar to those in which the rule or principle was first set forth. Informally, laypeople refer to “establishing a precedent” for anything from a habit to a protocol. Meanwhile, a precession is a “coming before.” (In physics and astronomy, this term refers to the alteration in the orientation of a rotating body’s axis.)

Inflectional forms of proceed are used to state that someone proceeded to act in some way or do something that they had not been doing previously, or that they are proceeding to do so now. The plural of the latter form is also a noun referring to the published minutes or records of an organization’s meeting.

Procedure, taken directly from French and referring to a sequence for accomplishing a task, is also based on proceed. Procedural can be applied as an adjective (while procedurally is an adverb), and it stands on its own (or modified as “police procedural”) as a noun referring to genre fiction that realistically portrays how an investigation or a similar process is conducted.

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1 Response to “Precede vs. Proceed”

  • Roberta B.

    An uncommon term, “precession,” is defined (not precision). How about one that is more common?
    Procession: 1) a group of individuals moving along in an orderly often ceremonial way, or 2) continuous forward movement.

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