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Precedent versus precedence

Posted by Wendy Wood on 10th November , 2020 in Grammar
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Last week, I overheard someone say, “Are we setting a precedence if we do it this way?” It sounded strange, so I looked up the phrase. It turns out, the correct word that belongs in the phrase is precedent. I love when a phrase actually has an entry in the dictionary!

Let’s take a look at the definitions of precedence, precedent, and set a precedent and learn a couple of tricks to remember them. (And learn something that’s been trying my patience.)

precedence: noun.            
1. the act or fact of preceding.
2. priority in order, rank, importance, etc.
3. priority in time.
4. the right to precede others in ceremonies or social formalities.
5. the order to be observed ceremonially by persons of different ranks.

precedent: noun.
1.  a preceding instance or case which may serve as an example for or justification in subsequent cases.
2. Law a legal decision or form of proceeding serving as an authoritative rule or pattern in future similar or analogous cases.

set a precedent: phrase.
1. to establish a judicial decision which then becomes a model for any future similar cases.
2.  to establish a mode of behaviour which is then taken as a justification for similar behaviour in the future.

Here are the tricks. Precedence means something given priority and conveniently comes first in the dictionary. Something usually gives or takes precedence. The similar sounding precedent is something done or said that serves as a rule or example for anything following it. The trick to remembering that precedent belongs with set is they both end in t.

By now in the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve all heard advertisements that begin, “In these unprecedented times…” Honestly, if I hear it one more time, I’m going to scream. Have any of these marketers bothered to google the 1918 influenza pandemic? The estimated 50 million deaths definitely set a precedent.

Wendy Wood



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