Precedent and Precedence Are Different

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A writer recently complained that Amazon had rejected her book title. She said that the title should be approved because the objectionable word in it “had a historical precedence.”

If she meant that the word had already appeared in another title, she wanted the word precedent.

Both words derive from the Latin verb praecedere, meaning, “to go before, to precede.”

Both precedence and precedent retain the meaning of “going before,” but with different connotations.

As a noun, English precedent denotes “a previous event, something that has gone before in time.” A precedent can be “an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.” As a legal term, precedent is defined as

[a] court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court. Judges will generally “follow precedent” – meaning that they use the principles established in earlier cases to decide new cases that have similar facts and raise similar legal issues. A judge will disregard precedent if a party can show that the earlier case was wrongly decided, or that it differed in some significant way from the current case. —USCourts.gov/

Precedents are “set” or “established.”

• I sincerely doubt they’ll allow a precedent to be set by such a ridiculous case.
• President Bush set precedent by appointing the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history.
• Charles set precedent by being the first royal father to be present at his children’s births.
• They didn’t consider the possibility of a sunami, because there was no precedent.
• For a former national security adviser to do such a thing is without precedent.
• Ed Skrein leaves ‘Hellboy,” sets precedent for actors in whitewashed roles

Precedence has the sense of “going first because of importance.”

The masculine Latin noun praecendens referred to a man who, because of his social importance, had the honor of going before men of lesser rank in an assembly or procession.

Precedence connotes priority, primacy, or preeminence. The sense of chronological placement may or may not be part of the meaning. Precedence is often “taken.”

• The main drawback is that freight always takes precedence over passenger travel.
• What are we saying to our children when football takes precedence over education?
• Rulings are based on precedence or upon interpretation of laws or core documents.

In addition to the meaning mix-up of precedence and precedent, the latter word is often misspelled as “precident”—and in surprising places:

CBS 2 spoke with a commercial real estate expert about how this may set a precident —CBS Chicago website

As for gas taxes, I can guess why the Senate Democrats want to set a precident on going after off-shore profits . . .— Tax Policy Center (Urban Institute & Brookings Institution)

law—judicial precident—Quizlet site, offering study cards for law students. (Perhaps not all is lost. The sample card shown does spell precedent correctly.)

Any spell checker would catch this misspelling, but simply associating precedent with precede should help get rid of the incorrect “i.”

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3 thoughts on “Precedent and Precedence Are Different”

  1. Very good points. You see similar confusimication between noun-adjective distinctions like bias/biased and prejudice/prejudiced. I think it’s one of those situations where “sounds like” wins over “what word are you actully looking for.” For all intensive purposes, anyways.

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