15 February 2010

A precedent "broken" in Casablanca

I watched part of Casablanca last night for the umpteenth time, and for the first time noticed a rather trivial error in the dialogue.  In an early cafe scene, Victor Laszlo has arrived with Ilsa and invites Rick (who never drinks with customers) to join them...

Laszlo: Won't you join us for a drink?
Renault: Oh no, Rick…
Rick: Thanks, I will.
Renault: Well … a precedent is being broken.

Later in the same scene, Renault uses the word improperly again:

Waiter: Your check, sir.
Rick: No, it's my party.
Renault: Another precedent gone. This has been a very interesting evening.

I'm not the first to have noticed this, and it in no way affects this wonderful movie, but it's the sort of thing that nitpickers and grammar Nazis love to encounter.

Photo via.


  1. Isn't Renault French? Doesn't he get a little leeway in idiomatic usage? Though they wouldn't say a broken precedent in French either, I think.

  2. Well, someone is going to have to explain this to me. I sure do not see the problem here.

  3. A precedent was MADE or established -- when you do something for the first time, it sets a precedent. What was broken was a custom or tradition.

    (Weird -- I also noticed that "foe pah" for the first time last night. Maybe they let Sam Goldwyn write the dialog? Of maybe the screenwriters thought they knew what the word meant, but didn't.)

  4. I disagree. As a noun, a precedent may be broken. In Law, a "binding precedent" is a decision that must be honored. A precedent is not a custom or tradition--it simply sets the foundation for the custom or tradition. Fowler (King's English) does not have a problem with this either (as far as I can tell). In fact, I find the word quite fitting for the hyper-legal environment of Casablanca, where travel papers mean difference between life and death. Rick's refusal to drink with patrons is NOT a tradition--it is a simple fact based on a declaration made off-screen at some point before this moment in time.

  5. I don't see a problem with the dialog.

    The precedent is that Rick never drinks with customers (or pays! esp. since he never drinks with customers). By drinking with these customers he is breaking a precedent, or "any act...that serves as a guide or justification for subsequent situations." Custom is another word for precedent.

    By later paying he is breaking another precedent. Since he never drinks with customers, he certainly never pays!

    In a movie like this there is a since of history. We are simply looking in at the happenings--TODAY--and are not always privvy to what has come before. These characters have back stories and this seems to be part of Rick's.

    I have seen this movie many times, without concern for the falling precedents, and will continue to do so.

    Thanks for bringing Casablanca up...now where can I watch it online...? :)

  6. Precedents are not "broken." You can't "break" them because they do not occur in the present - they "precede" the present. Thus the word.

    If you are going to "break" something, what you break is the streak created by the preceding events. What you break is a tradition, habit etc.

    Rick's declining to drink with patrons or pay for their drinks was one of the long-standing traditions at Rick's club - not an isolated event.

    What Renault should have said is "a tradition is being broken."

  7. Well, Minnesotastan, it's your blog, so, you get to be wrong if you want. According to my research, jmhuculak and Richard are correct. Don't make me take this to Grammar Girl or A Way With Words or someone is going to be sorry.

  8. Truth always originates in a minority of one, and every custom begins as a broken precedent.
    Will Durant


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