Precedent vs. Precedence

By Maeve Maddox

A passage in a newspaper article prompted this email from a reader:

I’m grimacing at a Virginia newspaper passage:”…the first paid event held at the commons area, which might set precedence for future events…”

I assume the author is not saying that this might make the future events come first. Please discuss the difference between precedents and precedence.

The similarity of pronunciation is perhaps one cause of confusion between precedents [PRES-ih-dents] and precedence [PRES-ih-dence], but the error also occurs with precedence and singular precedent.

The words are closely related in origin and meaning.

Among the meanings of Latin praecēdēns are “a person who goes in front,” “a person who ranks above,” and “a prior event.”

The noun precedence may have originated as an erroneous spelling of the plural of precedent, but it has acquired a distinct meaning of its own.

Precedence means, “the fact of being above or ahead of another or others in order, rank, or importance.” A common idiom is “to take precedence,” meaning “to enjoy the right of preceding others in ceremonies and social formalities.” A site on diplomatic protocol for the country of Saint Lucia provides an example of this usage:

The Prime Minister, like the Governor-General, as the Head of Government, is entitled to certain privileges and courtesies.  He/she has the right of precedence in all circumstances, except when the Governor-General is in attendance.

Things as well as people may “take precedence” in the sense of being esteemed above something else. An example of this use occurs in a speech by a prime minister of Singapore:

For a religious person, conscience and religious conviction take precedence over the laws of the state, but in a multi-religious society like ours, it becomes crucial to keep religion strictly separate from politics.

A precedent is “a previous instance taken as an example or rule by which to be guided in similar cases or circumstances.” A common idiom is “to set a precedent.”

In a legal context, a precedent is a judicial decision that constitutes an authoritative example for subsequent similar cases. For example: “Griswold v. Connecticut served as an important precedent in the Roe v. Wade decision.”

Here, with corrections, are some typical errors in the use of precedence for precedent:

INCORRECT: A court ruling expected soon—stemming from public access to pretrial information in the William Cruse murder case—may set a precedence in what can be reported in criminal cases before trials.
CORRECT : A court ruling expected soon—stemming from public access to pretrial information in the William Cruse murder case—may set a precedent in what can be reported in criminal cases before trials.

INCORRECT: If the studio achieves anywhere near the same amount of success they’ve seen with “Cinderella,” which has grossed nearly $160 million since its March 13 release, it may set a precedence for more live-action flicks to come.
CORRECT : If the studio achieves anywhere near the same amount of success they’ve seen with “Cinderella,” which has grossed nearly $160 million since its March 13 release, it may set a precedent for more live-action flicks to come.

INCORRECT: The Kyoto Protocol has set a significant precedence for climate target negotiations in the future, and particularly with respect to differentiation of targets between countries.
CORRECT : The Kyoto Protocol has set a significant precedent for climate target negotiations in the future, and particularly with respect to differentiation of targets between countries.

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1 Response to “Precedent vs. Precedence”

  • venqax

    Incident and incidence are similarly confused. As in, “All incidence of suspicious packages should be reported to Security” and “There has been a great increase in incidence of violence in the above three-square-block region.” In the second case inserting a “the” between “in” and “incidence” would fix it, as well as changing incidence to incidents.

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