[ noun pres-i-duhnt; adjective pri-seed-nt, pres-i-duhnt ]
/ noun ˈprɛs ɪ dənt; adjective prɪˈsid nt, ˈprɛs ɪ dənt /
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See synonyms for: precedent / precedents on Thesaurus.com

Law. a legal decision or form of proceeding serving as an authoritative rule or pattern in future similar or analogous cases.
any act, decision, or case that serves as a guide or justification for subsequent situations.
adjective pre·ce·dent [pri-seed-nt, pres-i-duhnt] /prɪˈsid nt, ˈprɛs ɪ dənt/
going or coming before; preceding; anterior.
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Origin of precedent

First recorded in 1350–1400; Middle English (adjective), from Middle French, from Latin praecēdent- (stem of praecēdēns ), present participle of praecēdere “to go in front of, go ahead of”; the noun is from the adjective; see precede, -ent


prec·e·dent·less, adjectivenon·prec·e·dent, nounnon·pre·ced·ent, adjectivequa·si-pre·ced·ent, adjective


precedence, precedents , presidents
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does precedent mean?

A precedent is an act or decision that serves as a guide for future situations with similar circumstances.

For example, the first U.S. president, George Washington, set a precedent when he limited himself to only two terms as president, and presidents ever since (with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) have followed that precedent—meaning they have done the same thing.

Precedent is especially used in a legal context, in which it refers to a past court decision or judicial ruling that can be used as a guideline for decisions in similar cases. In this context, precedent often refers collectively to all previous decisions relevant to the case. This sense of the word is used without the articles a or the, as in This ruling was based on precedent. 

Typically, lower courts (such as a state trial court or a U.S. district court) will look at decisions made by higher courts (such as a state supreme court or a U.S. court of appeals) to use as judicial precedent. Basing judicial decisions on precedent is intended to make them more objective or impartial due to not being based on a single personal opinion. Still, decisions are not required to be made based on precedent. Judges may break precedent or go against precedent in certain cases. These phrases can also be used outside of a legal context.

In general, when something has never been done or has never happened before, it can be described as without precedent. The word unprecedented means the same thing.

Much less commonly, precedent can be used as an adjective that means the same thing as preceding (which is much more commonly used).

Example: If we make this a holiday, we’ll set a precedent that our employees will expect us to follow every year.

Where does precedent come from?

The first records of the word precedent come from the 1300s. It ultimately comes from the Latin praecēdere, meaning “to go in front of” or “to go ahead of.” The noun sense of precedent is based on its earlier adjective use.

The word precedent starts with the word precede, meaning “to go before,” and precedents always involve things that have come before.

In law, precedent is usually created when several previous cases have resulted in the same decision—though a single decision can set a precedent.

The plural form precedents should not be confused with the noun precedence, which means the right to go before others.

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What are some other forms related to precedent?

  • precedentless (adjective)
  • nonprecedent (noun, adjective)
  • quasiprecedent (adjective)

What are some synonyms for precedent?

What are some words that share a root or word element with precedent

What are some words that often get used in discussing precedent?

How is precedent used in real life?

Precedent is especially used in the context of court rulings. But it’s also commonly used in a general way.



Try using precedent!

Is precedent used correctly in the following sentence?

The judge broke with precedent by ruling in a way that contradicted previous decisions.

How to use precedent in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for precedent


noun (ˈprɛsɪdənt)
law a judicial decision that serves as an authority for deciding a later case
an example or instance used to justify later similar occurrences
adjective (prɪˈsiːdənt, ˈprɛsɪdənt)
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for precedent

[ (press-uh-duhnt) ]

A previous ruling by a court that influences subsequent decisions in cases with similar issues.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Other Idioms and Phrases with precedent


see set a precedent.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.