While parliamentary procedure is generally very similar between American and British/Commonwealth parliaments and meetings, one curious difference arises in the notion of the ‘previous question’. While such a notion exists both sides of the Atlantic, everything from the form to the function appears to be different – at least until we dig deeper into the history.

In British and British-derived practice (for example, in Australia), the ‘previous question’ is the rare and unusual motion ‘That the question be not now put’. If carried, the main motion is ‘not now put’ and is immediately dropped. If negatived, the main motion is ‘now put’ and is immediately voted on.

In America, however, the ‘previous question’ is a routine matter that we in the Commonwealth would call moving closure, albeit phrased differently. If carried, the main motion is immediately voted on, and if negatived, debate continues on the main motion.

Very different, no?

We can understand how this situation arose, however, by tracing these two seemingly unrelated motions to their common previous question ancestor, way back in the England of 1604. [1] The previous question was introduced in the affirmative form typical of regular motions, hence ‘That the (main) question be put’. The mover of the motion would then vote against the motion, to vote that the question be not put. The moving of the motion forced the House to, before deciding whether to agree with the original motion, to first decide whether to consider the original motion at all: a ‘previous question’ to be decided first. [2]

Soon after, the motion had evolved to insert the word ‘now’, hence ‘That the question be now put’ [3], to signify that the main motion would be restrained only for the current day. [2] With the addition of ‘now’, however, the effect of the motion if agreed to became to vote on the motion immediately. [3]

One may notice that this form of the question is in fact identical to the closure motion, but the closure motion was not introduced until much later, in 1882. In 1888, due to this fact, the Speaker put the question in a negative form, ‘That the question be not now put’, leading to the form used today. [4]

The Right honourable Gentleman proposes to move the Previous Question. If I were to propose that Question in the customary form, the terms of the Motion would be "That that Question be now put," words which are almost identical with the words of the Motion for the Closure of a Debate. Moreover, hitherto, when a Member moves the Previous Question, he votes against his own Motion. I therefore think that the present occasion affords a good opportunity for establishing a precedent. I therefore propose, if I should obtain the full sanction of the House to my suggestion, to adopt instead of the present form of the Previous Question, the words "That the Question be not now put."

Meanwhile in Congress, things panned out differently. Having initially inherited the previous question from British usage (although apparently adopting it in the negative form in 1778 [5]), it was changed several times between 1805 and 1880 until becoming as it is today: retaining its wording, and largely retaining the effect of its adoption (but with more specificity), but removing the effect of its negation. [1]


[1] ROBERT, Henry M. Robert's Rules of Order Revised for Deliberative Assemblies. United States: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1915. p. 117–118.

[2] LANG, Anthony David. Horsley's Meetings: Procedure, Law and Practice. 7th edition. Australia: LexisNexis, 2015. p. 160–161. ISBN 9780409334845.

[3] ERSKINE MAY, Thomas. A Treatise Upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. 1st edition. London: Charles Knight & Co, 1844. p. 173–174.

[4] Memorandum of Sir Charles Warren. In: House of Commons Debates 20 March 1888. vol. 323, cc. 1861–1862.

[5] ERSKINE MAY, Thomas. A Treatise Upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. 9th edition. London: Butterworths, 1883. p. 304.