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I have a question about the term preceding. When the term is used in a sentence like the follow: turn off light only when the preceding light is on.

Does the preceding mean if the light before the position I am on is on? Say that there are 5 light switches in a row and I am at the second switch. I can turn off second switch I am at only if the first switch is on? That is what it means when the definition of preceding says "coming before something in order"?

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  • Preceding does mean something previous or prior, either temporally or spatially. So, technically, your sentence is fine, given the context you've provided. But it would normally not be phrased that way. Instead, it would be far more common to be explicit here: Turn off the second light only when (if) the first light is on. – Jason Bassford Jan 27 '19 at 18:20
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You're absolutely correct. "Preceding" and "Previous" here are interchangeable. Either refers to a sequence in space or in time, and indicates the item before the given or implied object. "Previous" is more common in use, but neither sounds wrong.

I would be careful in this situation about distinguishing between the space order (left to right row of lights), and the time order (which lights go on/off in what order) - it might be better to say "to the left" or "preceding it in the row" to be explicit about this!

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“preceding” is technically correct in that scenario, but if we were talking about only the first light and second switch, we would just call them that.

Where “preceding” is useful is when you have many things and each thing refers to the preceding thing.

For instance, when a traffic light turns green, each driver has to wait for the preceding car to move out of the way before he can start moving too.

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You may be confusing "preceding" with "the previous". Replace "preceding" with "the previous", and your statements make perfect sense. Or also, "the light before it" if you want to be completely clear.

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