precedent

1 of 2

adjective

: prior in time, order, arrangement, or significance

precedent

2 of 2

noun

prec·​e·​dent ˈpre-sə-dənt How to pronounce precedent (audio)
1
: an earlier occurrence of something similar
2
a
: 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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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.
Recent Examples on the Web
Adjective
This adaptation demands re-conceiving large chunks of plot from the ground-up while retaining Liu’s themes, not to mention visualizing concepts with less precedent onscreen than the fantasy tropes Martin deployed and subverted. Alison Herman, Variety, 9 Mar. 2024 Judge Barrett did not entirely embrace the notion of super-precedent. Jonathan Turley, WSJ, 15 Oct. 2020 See all Example Sentences for precedent 

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

Word History

Etymology

Adjective and Noun

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

First Known Use

Adjective

15th century, in the meaning defined above

Noun

15th century, in the meaning defined at sense 1

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

Dictionary Entries Near precedent

Cite this Entry

“Precedent.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/precedent. Accessed 12 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition

precedent

1 of 2 adjective
: going before in time, order, arrangement, or importance

precedent

2 of 2 noun
prec·​e·​dent ˈpres-əd-ənt How to pronounce precedent (audio)
1
: an earlier occurrence of something similar
2
: something that may serve as an example or rule to be followed in the future

Legal Definition

precedent

1 of 2 adjective
pre·​ce·​dent pri-ˈsēd-ᵊnt, ˈpre-səd- How to pronounce precedent (audio)
: prior in time, order, arrangement, or significance see also condition precedent at condition compare subsequent

precedent

2 of 2 noun
prec·​e·​dent ˈpre-səd-ᵊnt How to pronounce precedent (audio)
: 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.

Etymology

Adjective

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

More from Merriam-Webster on precedent

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