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 The danger of close relations with a foreign power, even an ally, could not have been lost on Xi Zhongxun, who had served alongside Gao in the northwest and had been persecuted along with him in 1935. Joseph Torigian, Foreign Affairs, 24 June 2024 In fact, many questionable stories swirl around the Pythagoreans who were persecuted for their philosophical and political ideas. Manon Bischoff, Scientific American, 13 June 2024 Republican politicians have embraced Trump’s aggrieved view of himself as victim, persecuted by President Biden and a Democratic cabal, that’s entirely divorced from the past. Steven P. Grossman, Baltimore Sun, 13 June 2024 Taken together, the two verdicts are ammunition Joe Biden can use to counter the narrative that his Justice Department is persecuting him. Haisten Willis, Washington Examiner - Political News and Conservative Analysis About Congress, the President, and the Federal Government, 12 June 2024 See all Example Sentences for persecute 

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 14 Jul. 2024.

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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