Precedent - president

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These two words can be confused - by typing errors, or by other carelessness. Spell-checkers do not necessarily spot this error, so don't make it. The two are pronounced differently, as well as being spelled differently, and they have different meanings.

  • precedent is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, the central consonant, the '-c-', sounded like 's', and the middle vowel fairly indeterminate: IPA: /ˈprɛs ɪd ənt/. It can be used both as a noun and as an adjective.
    • The adjective precedent means 'which goes before [usually in time]'. For example , "the precedent night" means 'the night before', and an academic can write in a textbook of his or her "precedent chapter". It is the Latin equivalent of the more commonly used English preceding which descends from it, and foregoing, which is the Germanic equivalent in meaning and etymology of the Romance word. Traditional British RP pronunciation had the stress on the second syllable, which had a long '-ee-' vowel: 'pre-SEED-ent', IPA: /prəs ˈiːd ənt/; nowadays it is as often pronounced in the same way as the noun, with the stress on the first syllable, 'PRE-sid-ent', ˈprɛs ɪ (or ə)d ənt.
    • The noun is particularly used in legal and administrative contexts. It means 'something [an event or decision etc] in the past which may serve as a model for what we do now'. Judges in English law try to go by precedent - that is, they decide a case by reference to the decisions made in similar cases in the past. If there are no similar cases, they may have to set a precedent - that is, make a decision which other courts in the future will have to follow. Something that is 'without precedent' is a new event which has had no previous event like it. The noun is always pronounced 'PRE-sid-ent', /ˈprɛs ɪd ənt/.
  • President is usually a noun. It is a title, most famously of the Head of State in the United States. The pronunciation of its central consonant is that of the sound most usually written with a '-z-' - that is, it is a voiced consonant: 'PRE-zid-ent' (IPA: /ˈprɛz ɪd ənt/. It is now obsolete as an adjective, but it used to be used more or less as 'presiding' is now: the leader of a body. It is the presiding officer of a court martial that takes the role of a chairman, deciding who speaks when and so on; and "there should be one byshop or pastor (at the least) president ouer euery congregation" - as was the state of affairs in 1588 (Udall, J; cited in OED 2007, s.v. president, adj.)