Precursor To vs. Precursor Of

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks,

Can you please tell me when to use “precursor to” and “precursor of”? Is there a difference between the two?

Latin praecursor (“forerunner, advanced guard”) is from a verb meaning “to run in front of.” Latin cursor means, “to run.”

The noun precursor entered English about 1500, chiefly in reference to John the Baptist as “Christ’s precursor.” The sense here is “a person who heralds the approach of another.”

In current usage, precursor is used to refer either to a person regarded as someone’s forerunner, or a thing regarded as the prototype of something else. Here are two examples:

Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson is regarded by film historians as the precursor to better-known movie cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

[Dick Tracy’s] wrist radio was the precursor of the cell phone of today.

The OED cites “precursor to” in 1675 and “precursor of” in 1716.

On the Ngram Viewer, “precursor of” is far more common in printed books until the 1960s, when “precursor to” begins a marked rise, although it remains below “precursor of” on the graph.

A Google search indicates that “precursor to” is more common than “precursor of” on the Web:

precursor to (6,330,000 results)
precursor of (4,230, 000 results)

In my own use, I think I’m more likely to use “precursor to” when linking people and “precursor of” in reference to things, but random examples taken from the Web indicate that the phrases are used interchangeably:

[The Scarlet Pimpernel] is seen as a precursor to the spy fiction and the superhero genres.

Only about one in eight people with so-called pre-diabetes, often a precursor to full-blown disease, know they have a problem, 

Was Marilyn Monroe a precursor of 1960s feminism?

It’s my belief that Marilyn Monroe was a precursor to the Women’s Movement.

Cyclorama paintings served as the precursor to movies.

Carole Lombard was the precursor to all sexy comediennes.

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