pre·​ce·​dent | \ pri-ˈsē-dᵊnt How to pronounce precedent (audio) , ˈpre-sə-dənt How to pronounce precedent (audio) \

Definition of precedent

 (Entry 1 of 2)

: prior in time, order, arrangement, or significance


prec·​e·​dent | \ ˈpre-sə-dənt How to pronounce precedent (audio) \

Definition of precedent (Entry 2 of 2)

1 : an earlier occurrence of something similar
2a : something done or said that may serve as an example or rule to authorize or justify a subsequent act of the same or an analogous kind a verdict that had no precedent
b : the convention established by such a precedent or by long practice
3 : a person or thing that serves as a model

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Synonyms & Antonyms for precedent

Synonyms: Adjective

Antonyms: Adjective

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Precedent and the Supreme Court


A precedent is something that precedes, or comes before. The Supreme Court relies on precedents—that is, earlier laws or decisions that provide some example or rule to guide them in the case they're actually deciding. When hostages are being held for ransom, a government may worry about setting a bad precedent if it gives in. And a company might "break with precedent" by naming a foreigner as its president for the first time.

Examples of precedent in a Sentence

Adjective behavior that may be explained by a precedent event in her troubled life Noun Suddenly, against all historical precedent just for that week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would have morphed into a well-organized and dependable outfit. — John McWhorter, National Review, 26 Sept. 2005 On July 12, in an action that seems to have been without precedent, the House voted, 355-0, to condemn a scientific article. — Jonathan Rauch, National Journal, 7 Aug. 1999 In cases close-run enough to require the Supreme court to decide them, precedent and principle are elastic enough, or complex enough, that justices can often decide either way without brazenly contradicting themselves. — Henry Louis Gates, Jr., New Republic, 20 & 27 Sept. 1993 We begin to appreciate the mystery when we realize that the act of naming, or denotation, is generically without precedent in natural history. — Walker Percy, "Naming And Being," 1960, in Signposts in a Strange Land1991 The judge's ruling was based on a precedent established by an earlier decision. He says that the government will set a dangerous precedent if it refuses to allow the protesters to hold a rally. The judge's ruling was based on legal precedent.
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Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective Britain has no clear privacy law, so precedent matters. The Economist, "Prince Harry accuses the press of hounding Meghan as it did Diana," 3 Oct. 2019 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun There is a historical precedent for the current moment of political discomfort in Scotland. Madeleine Kearns, National Review, "Boris Must Tread Lightly on the Scottish Question," 17 Jan. 2020 There is no precedent to show this kind of strategy is effective with any kind of criminal activity, let alone with cybercrime, where the dynamics are inherently so complicated and opaque. Rahul Kashyap, Quartz, "The hack back bill legitimizes a messy game of revenge for businesses," 15 Jan. 2020 Of course, there is a precedent for wolf reintroduction in the West. Ben Long, Outdoor Life, "Colorado Braces for Wolves as Politics Clash with Wildlife Management," 13 Jan. 2020 There's no precedent in modern times for this kind of working arrangement within the royal family, or The Firm as some in Britain like to call it. Washington Post, "Britons muse on Megxit: ‘Diana would be so proud’," 11 Jan. 2020 The port’s Benassini said there is a precedent for offices at other waterfront sites and that state authorities would support offices at piers 38 and 40. Roland Li,, "Dilapidated SF piers near Oracle Park could become offices, retail," 10 Jan. 2020 There was no slow leak, and there was certainly no precedent of what amounted to a sudden flat tire on the freeway. June Demelo, Harper's BAZAAR, "When she refused to nurse one evening around 10 months old, I chalked it up to a fluke, probably an illness, definitely not a sudden spurt of baby-led weaning.," 23 Dec. 2019 After all, Dyson notes, there is precedent for this. Smithsonian, "Soil From a Northern Ireland Graveyard May Lead Scientists to a Powerful New Antibiotic," 19 Dec. 2019 The idea had precedent: In 2006, Ethiopia initiated a program to train eight neurologists, one for each of the eight medical schools in the nation, which quickly doubled the nation’s neurologists. Oliver Staley, Quartz Africa, "Zambia has 17 million people, a stroke epidemic, and no neurologists," 30 Dec. 2019

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'precedent.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of precedent


15th century, in the meaning defined above


15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for precedent

Adjective and Noun

Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin praecedent-, praecedens, present participle of praecedere — see precede

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Time Traveler for precedent

Time Traveler

The first known use of precedent was in the 15th century

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Statistics for precedent

Last Updated

24 Nov 2019

Cite this Entry

“Precedent.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 21 January 2020.

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More Definitions for precedent


How to pronounce precedent (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of precedent

somewhat formal
: a similar action or event that happened at an earlier time
: something done or said that can be used as an example or rule to be followed in the future
: the usual or traditional way of doing something


pre·​ce·​dent | \ ˈpre-sə-dənt How to pronounce precedent (audio) \

Kids Definition of precedent

: something that can be used as a rule or example to be followed in the future


pre·​ce·​dent | \ pri-ˈsēd-ᵊnt, ˈpre-səd- How to pronounce precedent (audio) \

Legal Definition of precedent

 (Entry 1 of 2)

: prior in time, order, arrangement, or significance — see also condition precedent at condition — compare subsequent


prec·​e·​dent | \ ˈpre-səd-ᵊnt How to pronounce precedent (audio) \

Legal Definition of precedent (Entry 2 of 2)

: a judicial decision that should be followed by a judge when deciding a later similar case — see also stare decisis — compare dictum

Note: To serve as precedent for a pending case, a prior decision must have a similar question of law and factual situation. If the precedent is from the same or a superior jurisdiction (as the state's supreme court), it is binding upon the court and must be followed; if the precedent is from another jurisdiction (as another state's supreme court), it is considered only persuasive. Precedents may be overruled especially by the same court that originally rendered the decision.

History and Etymology for precedent


Middle French, from Latin praecedent- praecedens, present participle of praecedere to go ahead of, come before

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Comments on precedent

What made you want to look up precedent? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


good-natured easy friendliness

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