Prescribe vs. Proscribe

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Only one letter separates this oppositional pair. To prescribe is to order the use of or set out a rule. From this we get a prescription, which sets out how you are to take a particular medicine. We also get prescriptive grammar, which is grammar that presumes that there is one set of grammatical rules that everyone should follow.

In contrast, to proscribe is to forbid, ban or denounce. It originates from the Latin meaning to post in writing and described the 16th century practice of posting public notices about those who had been condemned.

To keep the usage straight, think of this. If you are studying at college your set texts are prescribed, while texts that you are not allowed to read are proscribed.

Incorrect Usage

Some times even large publications get it wrong, like here:

Prosecutors have portrayed 57-year-old Martin MacNeill as a lying adulterer who pestered his 50-year-old wife to get a face-lift and persuaded her plastic surgeon to proscribe a mix of potentially lethal pills for her recovery. (USA Today)

Correct Usage

Some emergency room doctors are far more likely than others even within their own department to prescribe opioids to treat pain in older people, and their patients are at greater risk of using the powerful drugs chronically than those who saw doctors who prescribe them less frequently, according to a large new study. (NY Times)

Increasingly, the rules of workplace culture proscribe all sorts of talk about sex, and enforce this proscription with ”sensitivity training” and strategic mention of lawsuits. (NY Times)

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3 thoughts on “Prescribe vs. Proscribe”

  1. I remember encountering this word “proscribe” for the first time several years ago. At first, I thought there was typo. Luckily, my online dictionary was open and I was able to know its meaning immediately.

  2. ”If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    It seems to me that Frederick Douglass meant to say “The limits of tyrants are proscribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.””

    Ie: to give a negative prescription is “to proscribe.”
    “The spread of the fire was proscribed by the water’s edge.”
    “The tyranny was proscribed (limited; defined/given as a limit) by the endurance of the oppressed.”

    Yet, everywhere online, the quote is given as “prescribed.” Am I wrong? The Lew Rockwell site’s version of the above quote has an additional typo in it, as it uses “depreciate” instead of “deprecate.” The Lew Rockwell site is very clearly wrong about that, as “to lose value” is clearly different than “to denounce.”

  3. I’m using these two words slightly differently, though I feel there is enough semantic overlap for a valid usage.

    Like when going to a see a Doctor, they write you a “prescription” for medication, it means that then and there they decide what the outcome will be – that there are alternatives, but they choose one particular outcome as a preference over the rest.

    Now, “proscription” – as antonym – would mean that I cannot choose as a preference, but that the outcome was fixed – I must accept the result, because it has already been decided. The alternatives are all prohibited.

    Prescription – open => “choice”
    Proscription – closed => “acceptance”


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