Usage Notes

'Prosecute' vs. 'Persecute'

One you do in court, the other you do if you're a jerk


Many of us have certain pairs of words which we on occasion find it difficult to distinguish between. For some affect and effect are the troublesome duo, while other people prefer somewhat more rarefied causes of confusion, such as exigent and exiguous. Somewhere between these two in its frequency is the case of prosecute and persecute.

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Both words may be traced to similar Latin words; 'prosecute' from 'prosequi' (“to pursue”), and 'persecute' from 'persequi' (“to persecute”).

Let’s first look at the senses of these two words which are most often confused:

Prosecute - to bring legal action against for redress or punishment of a crime or violation of law.
Persecute - to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically: to cause to suffer because of belief.

It is easy to see how these words might be confused (and if you are one of those people who likes to scoff and loudly proclaim “anyone who can’t tell the difference between X and Y is not very intelligent,” please stop doing that, since it does not make you look smarter, kinder, or more interesting). They are spelled and pronounced in similar fashion, and each one refers to an action that most people would very much prefer to not have happen to them.

Both words may be traced to similar Latin words; prosecute from prosequi (“to pursue”), and persecute from persequi (“to persecute”), and both appear to have entered the English language at about the same time, near the end of the 15th century. The meaning of persecute (in its ‘act like a complete jerk’ sense) has been its predominant one since the beginning of the word’s use in English.

And by the space of four dayes vexid and troublid Crete in robbyng and shedyng the blood of the Cytezeyns, And he ne persecuted onely the men, but also women and chyldren and toke theyr goodes and departyd amonge them that helde on hys partye.
— Raoul Lefèvre, Historyes of Troye, 1473

And we rede of the kynge Dauid that was first symple & one of the comyn peple that whan fortune had enhaunsed and sette hym in grete astate he lefte and forgate his god and fyll to aduoultrye and homicyde and other synnes than anon his owne sone Absalon assaylled & began to persecute hym.
— Jacobus, To the Right Noble, Right Excellent Vertuous Prince George, 1474

Prosecute, on the other hand, entered our language with a meaning that, although still current, has been supereseded by the legal sense. This meaning is “to follow to the end, to press to execution or completion.”

To the whiche lerned men and vniuersities determination (as a prince moste iuste and vertuous) he alwey offered hym selfe to stande and abyde, and accordynge therto hath nowe prosecuted his cause.
— Thomas Swinnerton, A Litel Treatise Ageynste the Mutterynge of Some Papistis in Corners, 1534

There are similar non-legal senses of prosecute which are in common use today, such as the recent case of the word being employed with the meaning of “to engage in or proceed with.”

It feels to me that Saudi Arabia is being allowed to prosecute the war in this way because of the perceived threat from Iran.
Lisa O’Kelly, _The Observer (London, Eng.), 3 Dec. 2017

It is not very difficult to find each of these words used in edited prose where the other one would perhaps be more applicable.

In the past two months, some 50 persons have been persecuted on criminal charges arising from the boycott.
The Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS), 24 May 1959

Anyway, the reason all us farmers feel prosecuted is the fact that the middleman has got us by the scruff and keeps shaking until the last farthing has fallen from our toil-worn hands.
The Journal Times (Racine, WI), 19 Nov. 1964

However, it should be noted that many dictionaries do include a sense of persecute (generally labelled ‘dialectal’ or ‘regional’) which is defined as “to prosecute at law.” And there are circumstances in which phrases such as “persecuted criminals” will make sense, as in the following sarcastic comment found in The Chicago Tribune.

And it may be that the Supreme Court, in its love for technicalities and its fear lest the poor, oppressed, persecuted criminals may come to grief, will reverse on account of those remarks.
The Chicago Tribune, 30 Jan. 1895

When using these words in a legal sense, or to refer to oppression of some kind you would do well to distinguish between them, reserving prosecute for the judicial role, and persecute for the act of tormenting or oppressing. If you are one of those who has trouble distinguishing between these words we are sorry to say that your problem is not yet common enough to have warranted any well-known mnemonics. If there's nothing on television tonight, maybe this is an opportunity to spend a fun and productive three hours coming up with your own ways of remembering (perhaps ... ‘One feels persecuted, since the Es in feel match the initial E in persecute’; ‘One generally wants a pro to be the prosecutor’). Ok, maybe three hours won’t be necessary… give yourself five minutes and you should be able to come up with some that are better than those.



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