Precedence vs. Precedent – What’s the Difference?

Legal language is notorious for containing jargon and indecipherable, counterintuitive linguistic constructions. When some of these words are homophones with other English words, the situation becomes even less comprehensible.

Precedence and precedents are two such words. Precedents is fairly common in legal English. It sounds the same as precedence when spoken aloud, even though it means something else, making these two words homophones.

How is a writer to distinguish between these confusing words? Luckily, even though they appear similar, these words have separate usage cases and can never be substituted for each other. As long as you know their meanings, you should always be able to remember when to use each.

To that end, continue reading for a thorough explanation of the differences between these two words. Is the word you are looking for precedent or precedence?

What is the Difference Between Precedence and Precedent?

In this post, I will compare precedence vs. precedent. I will use each of these words in example sentences; this way, you can see them in context.

Following that, I will give you a memory tool that will help you choose precedence or precedents correctly next time you need one of these words.

When to Use Precedence

precedence versus precedent What does precedence mean? Precedence is a noun. Something that takes precedence has priority over other things. Your family might take precedence over your job or your career.

The word is related to the verb precede, which means to come before.

Here are a few example sentences,

  • “I know you want to finish the file updates, but the system audit takes precedence this week,” said Jim’s boss.
  • Vehicle repairs and routine maintenance have precedence over cosmetic upgrades and luxury appointments.
  • “Your homework takes precedence over those silly video games you play,” said Phil’s mom each night.
  • Addressing our attitudes toward work, Dreher proposes deprioritizing headlong professional advancement in favor of a more balanced, integrated life in which faith and community take precedence. –The Washington Post

In this everyday sense, precedence has nothing to do with the law or legal matters.

When to Use Precedent

Definition of precedent definition of precedence definitionWhat does precedent mean? Precedent is also a noun. A precedent, or in the plural form precedents, is an event that has already happened.

In legal contexts, precedents are existing court rulings that are used as reference points for a working interpretation of the law.

See the sentences below for examples,

  • The law student thumbed through a heavy stack of legal precedents in the library.
  • “There are no precedents for this type of animosity,” mused several journalists.
  • “I am interested in the precedents that lead to his outbursts,” said the behavior specialist.
  • Judge Gorsuch was just applying court precedent as it existed at the time, the senator says. –The Wall Street Journal

It is common to hear something say, “This sets a bad precedent for the future.” In this case, precedence would not be appropriate.

Similarly, when something is without precedent, it is said to be unprecedented.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Define precedent and define precedenceNow, let’s go over trick to remember precedent vs. precedence.

  • Precedence is a noun that can be used as a synonym for priority in many contexts.
  • Precedent is also a noun, but it refers to an event that came before.

The words are pronounced as homophones, and are thus quite confusing, but with this trick, remembering them will be easy.

Since precedents has a T, like court, you should be able to easily remember that precedents is a common term in legal writing.

Summary

Is it precedence or precedent? Precedence and precedents are homophones, but they cannot be substituted for each other. Each word has its own separate usage case.

  • Precedence means top priority.
  • Precedent means existing court rulings in legal contexts.

To remind yourself that precedents is often a legal term, remember that precedents and court each contain the letter T.

Don’t forget, you can always check this article for a quick refresher any time you need a reminder of these words’ meanings.

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