Word Confusion: Persecute versus Prosecute

Posted October 6, 2016 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

Revised as of 4 October 2017

Persecute and prosecute are both negative words. The former is cruel to others while the latter seeks redress from others.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Persecute Prosecute
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com

Church of St. Theresa in Porto Alegre

“Church of St. Theresa in Porto Alegre” was photographed by Eugenio Hansen, OFS, under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Yep, I reckon Christ was persecuted all right.

Red sign reading

“No Trespassing Sign at Empty Lot in February” was photographed by Rutebega under the CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL licenses, via Wikimedia Commons

I can’t blame the owner for wanting to prosecute.

Part of Grammar:
Verb, transitive

Third person present verb: persecutes
Past tense or past participle: persecuted
Gerund or present participle: persecuting

Verb, intransitive & transitive

Third person present verb: prosecutes
Past tense or past participle: prosecuted
Gerund or present participle: prosecuting


Subject (someone) to hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of their race or political or religious beliefs

  • Harass or annoy someone persistently
You start legal proceedings against someone/thing

Verb, intransitive:
Institute legal proceedings against a person or organization

  • [Of a lawyer] Conduct the case against the party being accused or sued in a lawsuit

Verb, transitive:
Institute legal proceedings against a person or organization

  • Institute legal proceedings in respect of a claim or offense

Continue with a course of action with a view to its completion 1

  • [Archaic] Carry on a trade or pursuit
His followers were persecuted by the authorities.

Hilda was persecuted by some of the other girls.

Bullies persecute others.

The Jews were persecuted to an appalling extent during World War II.

Verb, intransitive:
The company didn’t prosecute because of his age.

Mr. Ryan will be prosecuting this morning.

Verb, transitive:
They were prosecuted for obstructing the highway.

The state’s attorney’s office seemed to decide that this was a case worth prosecuting.

It is a serious threat to the government’s ability to prosecute the war.

I await permission to prosecute my craft.

Adjective: persecutive, persecutory, nonpersecuting, nonpersecutive, nonpersecutory, unpersecuted, unpersecuting, unpersecutive
Adverb: persecutingly
Noun: persecutiveness, persecutor
Verb, transitive: overpersecute, overpersecuted, overpersecuting
Adjective: prosecutable
History of the Word:
Late Middle English from the Old French persecuter, which is from the Latin persecut- meaning followed with hostility, from the verb persequi, which is from per- (through, utterly) + sequi (follow, pursue). 1 Late Middle English is from the Latin prosecut- meaning pursued, accompanied, from the verb prosequi, which is from pro- (onward) + sequi (follow).

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Against Cyberbullying is .i.s.b.e.i.g.e.’s own work under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons.