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

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. See More
Recent Examples on the Web: Adjective Judge Barrett did not entirely embrace the notion of super-precedent. Jonathan Turley, WSJ, 15 Oct. 2020 Many legal scholars question the basis for declaring an ever-wider array of cases to be super-precedent as a way to protect favored rulings. Jonathan Turley, WSJ, 15 Oct. 2020 Britain has no clear privacy law, so precedent matters. The Economist, 3 Oct. 2019 Recent Examples on the Web: Noun Politico reported that five justices could overturn the precedent, despite polls that show a majority of Americans support upholding the Roe decision. Sonia Rao, Washington Post, 19 May 2022 Attorneys for the Riverkeeper said these rulings set an important precedent in examining sites that continue to pollute after they have been closed. Dennis Pillion |, al, 18 May 2022 General Secretary Xi Jinping presumably doesn’t want a historically weak economy ahead of his probable bid for a precedent-breaking third term atop the Chinese Communist Party this fall. Nathaniel Taplin, WSJ, 17 May 2022 Sixty-eight years ago today, the Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which overturned prior precedent and outlawed segregation in public schools. Vangela M. Wade, Time, 17 May 2022 According to Chevron, Kisor, and other U.S. Supreme Court precedent, those factors support the general inference that Congress would have favored some level of deference in judicial review of agency determinations. Ryan Finley, Forbes, 16 May 2022 Fox bucked precedent in other ways, ditching the large Beacon Theatre event of years past for a smaller venue downtown. Mikey O'connell, The Hollywood Reporter, 16 May 2022 Legislating an expansion would set a reckless precedent and create instability in this institution based on which political party is currently in power. Anchorage Daily News, 15 May 2022 In a sign of how ideology and political allegiances often take precedent in Lebanon, Qassim Shtouni, 71, drove all the way from his village in southern Lebanon to Beirut to vote. Zeina Karam,, 15 May 2022 See More

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.

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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Dictionary Entries Near precedent



precedent condition

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Statistics for precedent

Cite this Entry

“Precedent.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 May. 2022.

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More Definitions for precedent


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

More from Merriam-Webster on precedent

Nglish: Translation of precedent for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of precedent for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about precedent


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