Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Precursor To and Precursor Of

‘Precursor to’ and ‘precursor of’ are phrases that mean much the same thing. They are used to show that something was an earlier form of something else. However, their use is not very consistent, which can be incredibly confusing.

The word ‘precursor’ means something that came before another thing. It can mean something that was an earlier version of something else, such as a prototype or a predecessor. The word is also used to mean something that is a sign of coming events.

In short, it is something that came before a related event.

The prepositions used in the two phrases are also different. Since they have many different uses, I will cut it down to the ones that are relevant to the phrase.

‘To’ means something along the lines of ‘toward’, as in pointing to something. A ‘precursor to’ would then be something that leads to a new thing.

‘Of’, on the other hand, means where it comes from, or the origin of the thing in question. A ‘precursor of’ would be where the new thing came from.

‘Precursor of’ used to be more widely used, but ‘precursor to’ has been making a big leap in use recently. Of the two, ‘precursor to’ is older, and first cited as being used in 1675. ‘Precursor of’ was first used in 1716. From there, ‘precursor of’ remained more common until the 1960’s, where ‘precursor to’ started to become more common. On the internet, ‘precursor to’ is much more common, though ‘precursor of’ is still much more common in books.

However, if we are to look at the meanings of the phrases by what the prepositions mean, then you might be able to see a difference. ‘Precursor to’, judging by the ‘to’ preposition, means a thing that leads to a new thing, which means that the precursor is more important, because it is what leads to the new thing. ‘Precursor of’ shows what the new thing was created after, which means that the older thing is not in as much of the spotlight.

The wrist radio was the precursor to the cell phone of today.

The wrist radio was the precursor of the cell phone of today.

In the first sentence, there’s slightly more emphasis on the wrist radio than there is in the second. This is because in the second sentence, the wrist radio is part of the modern cell phone. In the first one, there isn’t as much of that, as it shows more of a path from the radio to the phone.

Given that, it would make more sense to use ‘precursor to’ when the precursor is more important and ‘precursor of’ when the precursor is not as important as the thing it led to. For example, take these two sentences:

The precursor of modern lemonade was a drink made with honey, dates, and lemons.

The precursor to modern lemonade was a drink made with honey, dates, and lemons.

It would make more sense to see the first sentence in an article about the drink made with honey and dates, while the second one would belong more in an article about lemonade. This is because the first sentence uses ‘of’, which suggests that the modern lemonade is more important. However, both sentences would fit in an article about lemonade, since the ‘to’ suggests that they’re both at about the same level of importance.

However the use of the phrase is fairly inconsistent. There is no clear pattern to how it is used, and the two are pretty much interchangeable.

So, to summarize, both phrases are used in about the same way. If you do need to draw a distinction, then ‘precursor of’ should be used when the modern thing is much more important than the precursor.

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  1. How does ‘for’ fit in? Precursor for something. Or is that just wrong?

    • Hi Jo,
      It would appear so. The Macquarie defines precursor as “a predecessor” or “one who or that which indicates the approach of another or something else”, which would render “precursor for” as nonsensical. I’ve been unable to find many examples of “precursor to” either, which suggests “precursor of” is the more commonly used. The website thesaurus.com lists “forerunner”, “harbinger” and “prototype” among the synonyms for precursor, and each of those would be followed by “of” (e.g. harbinger of doom), so I’d go with “precursor of” in all instances. Hope that helps.

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