precedent

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precedent

Post by trolley » Wed Nov 25, 2015 8:50 pm

When discussing the threads “Irritating Expressions” and “When is a Cliche” with a friend, he offered up “setting a precedent” and claimed that it was often used incorrectly. He maintains that you cannot set a precedent by doing something once (except in the legal sense). He gave the example of a person refusing to do something for fear of setting a precedent. A child’s bedtime is 8:00 pm. He wants to stay up until 8:30 tonight to watch a television show but his mother worries that will set a precedent. My friend claims that a precedent would only be set by allowing him to stay up later twice, if not several times. Most dictionaries give the #1 definition of precedent as something like “An act or instance that may be used as an example in dealing with subsequent similar instances”, but others go on to say things like “Convention or custom arising from long practice” and use synonyms such as “pattern” or “tradition.”

Dictionary.com offers this:
Establish a usage, tradition, or standard to be followed in the future. For example, He set a precedent by having the chaplain lead the academic procession.

Is my friend on to something, here? Can you create a tradition with the very first
instance? One time does not make a pattern.
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Re: precedent

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Nov 25, 2015 10:02 pm

The way I see it, although you're right to say that one time does not make a pattern, it's enough to provide a model that can be copied. In that sense, it can represent a precedent.

Bottom line: You don't need a pattern to set a precedent.
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Re: precedent

Post by Phil White » Sat Nov 28, 2015 7:47 pm

As far as I see it, the number of instances of a previous behaviour is entirely irrelevant. If it or they is or are subsequently regarded as the pattern to be followed, then a precedent has been set and that behaviour becomes established practice.

I think you would go a long way to find many examples of "set a precedent" that did not refer to a single instance of a behaviour. Usage is pretty clear. As always, if that's how most people use and understand it, that's what it means, whether we like it or not.
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Non sum felix lepus

Re: precedent

Post by trolley » Sun Nov 29, 2015 12:16 am

"If it or they is or are subsequently regarded as the pattern to be followed, then a precedent has been set and that behaviour becomes established practice."
I agree. My friend's argument is that by breaking that established practice you have not re-set that precedent or set a new precedent. Maybe it's just a one-off. It seems that someone else leading the academic procession has been the norm. That is the precedent. When he allows the chaplain to lead the procession, that's not a precedent, at least not yet...not until it gets repeated and becomes the new norm.
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Re: precedent

Post by Phil White » Sun Nov 29, 2015 10:02 am

Exactly, but "for fear of setting a precendent" or "it may set a precedent" are perfectly okay in the context of a single behaviour.

Actually, it was only your last post that made it clear to me what your friend was objecting to. Deviant behaviour, such as that of the chaplain, is only a precedent if others follow (which, of course, they did in this case, but that's another matter...).
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Non sum felix lepus

End of topic.
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