• 2-minute read
  • 6th February 2016

Word Choice: Proscribe vs. Prescribe

The verbs ‘proscribe’ and ‘prescribe’ are similar in spelling and pronunciation, but they are also opposites, so mixing them up could be disastrous. A doctor who ‘proscribed’ life-saving medicine, for example, would be bad at their job.

More pertinently, although confusing ‘proscribe’ and ‘prescribe’ in your written work might not seem a big deal, it could seriously impact your clarity. As such, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the meaning of these terms.

Proscribe (To Forbid)

The word ‘proscribe’ means to ‘forbid as harmful’, ‘denounce’ or ‘make illegal’:

Every legal system proscribes theft and murder.

Something which has been proscribed is known as a ‘proscription’:

The proscriptions in Leviticus have caused significant debate.

Likewise, if you want to describe someone or something as having proscribed against something else, you can use the adjective ‘proscriptive’.

Prescribe (To Make a Rule)

As opposed to banning something, the term ‘prescribe’ means ‘to make something a rule’ or endorse it:

The guidelines prescribe wearing goggles while using the bandsaw.

The most common use of ‘prescribe’ these days is in a medical context, where it means to recommend a remedy or treatment:

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The doctor prescribed antibiotics for my ear infection.

Something prescribed, whether by law, convention or a doctor, is known as a ‘prescription’. The adjectival form here is ‘prescriptive’ and explains why rule-obsessed grammarians like to talk about ‘prescriptive grammar’.

This blog post, for example, is prescriptive insofar as it prescribes the correct way to use the word ‘prescribe’!

Proscribe or Prescribe?

As you can see, there’s a big difference between ‘proscribing’ and ‘prescribing’ something:

Proscribed = Forbidden or prohibited

Prescribed = Compulsory or recommended

To remember this it can help to focus on how both ‘proscribe’ and ‘prohibit’ start with ‘pro-’ and mean ‘forbid’ (to ‘prohibit’ something is the same as ‘proscribing’ against it).

Likewise, as long as you keep in mind that a doctor uses a ‘prescription pad’ (not a ‘proscription pad’), it should be easy to remember that ‘prescribe’ means to recommend or set out as a rule.

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