per·​se·​cute ˈpər-si-ˌkyüt How to pronounce persecute (audio)
persecuted; persecuting

transitive verb

: to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict
specifically : to cause to suffer because of belief
: to annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (such as attacks, pleas, or importunities) : pester
persecutee noun
persecutive adjective
persecutor noun
ˈpər-si-kyü-ˌtȯr-ē How to pronounce persecute (audio)

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Prosecute vs. Persecute

Take care to distinguish between prosecuted and persecuted, although we sincerely hope that neither word applies to you. Persecute typically has a small range of meanings, such as “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict.” Although the word is occasionally found in dialectal use to mean “prosecute,” many usage guides consider this to be an error. Prosecute is generally found today in a legal context (“to bring legal action against for redress or punishment of a crime or violation of law”), although the word may also be used to mean “to follow to the end” or “to engage in.” If someone is prosecuted they are being tried in a court of law; if they are persecuted they are being targeted and harassed.

Choose the Right Synonym for persecute

wrong, oppress, persecute, aggrieve mean to injure unjustly or outrageously.

wrong implies inflicting injury either unmerited or out of proportion to what one deserves.

a penal system that had wronged him

oppress suggests inhumane imposing of burdens one cannot endure or exacting more than one can perform.

a people oppressed by a warmongering tyrant

persecute implies a relentless and unremitting subjection to annoyance or suffering.

a child persecuted by constant criticism

aggrieve implies suffering caused by an infringement or denial of rights.

a legal aid society representing aggrieved minority groups

Examples of persecute in a Sentence

The country's leaders relentlessly persecuted those who fought against the regime. They were persecuted for their beliefs.
Recent Examples on the Web That was before or after the dog ate the homework, the check got lost in the mail, and whatever else Michigan folks have thrown out there already to suggest they are unfairly persecuted. Terence Moore, Forbes, 13 Nov. 2023 In the coming years, al Qaeda would also criticize Hamas for its failure to implement Islamic law in Gaza, for forging close ties with the Shiite Iranian regime in Iran, and for persecuting local jihadi groups in Gaza, such as Jund Ansar Allah and Jaysh al-Umma. Cole Bunzel, Foreign Affairs, 2 Nov. 2023 In another case, a woman from Venezuela came to the U.S. after she was persecuted for participating in political rallies against her government. David Hernandez, San Diego Union-Tribune, 8 Oct. 2023 Challenging traditional views of Jewish resistance Historians, including myself, had long painted a picture of passivity of the persecuted. Wolf Gruner, The Conversation, 29 Aug. 2023 Antisemitism should not be seen as free speech but [as] hate speech and must be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Benjamin Weinthal, Fox News, 23 Oct. 2023 Russia also vetoed a 2007 resolution calling on the Myanmar military junta to stop persecuting minority and opposition groups. Catherine Belton, Washington Post, 20 Oct. 2023 The Consumer Product Safety Commission is persecuting a fireworks manufacturer because its products make the wrong sound. Dominic Pino, National Review, 23 Oct. 2023 It’s powered by Falun Gong, a religious group persecuted in China, which launched The Epoch Times as a free propaganda newsletter more than two decades ago to oppose the Chinese Communist Party. Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News, 13 Oct. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'persecute.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English, from Middle French persecuter, back-formation from persecuteur persecutor, from Late Latin persecutor, from persequi to persecute, from Latin, to pursue, from per- through + sequi to follow — more at sue

First Known Use

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of persecute was in the 15th century

Dictionary Entries Near persecute

Cite this Entry

“Persecute.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 Nov. 2023.

Kids Definition


per·​se·​cute ˈpər-si-ˌkyüt How to pronounce persecute (audio)
persecuted; persecuting
: to treat continually in a way meant to be cruel or harmful
especially : to cause to suffer because of belief
persecutor noun
persecutory adjective

More from Merriam-Webster on persecute

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