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Don't proceed until you've nailed the difference between "proceed" and "precede"

Some things in English seem intuitive. Take the verbs "proceed" and "precede," for example. They sound so similar, they must be etymologically related, right? 

A listener named Ron says he was helping his fifth grader study for a spelling test when they came across "precede" and "proceed."

"He struggled with why two nearly identical words are spelled so differently," Ron says. "I thought I could provide him with a simple explanation of their origin -- I cannot."

Don't worry Ron. That's why we're here.

"Proceed" and "precede" are related. They both go back to the same Latin root word "cedere" which means to give way or yield or retreat.

"Precede" means to come or go before. It comes into English in the 1400s, most likely as a borrowing from both French and Latin.

Since English spelling wasn’t standardized until well into or even after the Renaissance, there were a lot of variations in the early spellings of "precede." It could be spelled with an "s" and "c," and with both "eed" and "ede." In the end, the "c" and "ede" are what survived standardization.  

"Proceed" means to go or come forth from or to move forward. This word also comes in from both French and Latin, and once again, there were all sorts of variations in the early spellings. Like its cousin, "proceed" was spelled with "c" or "s," and with "eed" or "ede." This time though, it's the "c" and "eed" spelling that gets standardized.

Why do these particular spellings of "precede" and "proceed" survive? We don't know. Perhaps the different prefixes and different spellings of the Latin root word help distinguish them from each other. What do you think?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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