Word Choice: Proscribe vs. Prescribe
  • 2-minute read
  • 31st August 2016

Word Choice: Proscribe vs. Prescribe

How big a difference can one letter make? Well, if it’s a choice between having a “bowl of chili” or a “bowel of chili,” we’re pretty sure which one we’d pick.

Definitely preferable. (Image: Carstor/wikimedia)

Likewise, confusing “proscribe” and “prescribe” in your written work, although less painful, would be pretty disastrous. This is because “proscribe” and “prescribe” are actually opposites, despite looking similar written down. Make sure you know what each words means.

Proscribe (To Forbid)

To “proscribe” something is to forbid it or make it illegal, usually because it’s harmful:

The sale of alcohol was proscribed throughout the United States.

Not everyone took the ban that seriously, though…

While “proscribe” is a verb, the noun form is “proscription” (i.e., a ban upon something) and the adjective is “proscriptive” (i.e., the quality of banning something).

Prescribe (To Make a Rule)

As mentioned above, “prescribe” is the opposite of “proscribe.” As such, it means “set down as a rule” and applies mainly to recommending something:

Safety guidelines prescribe wearing protective goggles.

Even dogs need eye protection.
Or “doggles,” if you’re of the canine persuasion.

Another common use of “prescribe” is in medicine, where it refers to approving a course of treatment:

It turned out it was an allergy, so the doctor prescribed antihistamines.

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In both cases, the noun form is “prescription.” Something which sets down rules to be followed, meanwhile, can be described as “prescriptive” (like how this blog post is “prescriptive” about using the word “prescribe”).

Proscribe or Prescribe?

It’s understandable that these words get confused, because the prefixes “pro-” and “pre-” can both mean “beforehand” or “in advance.”

This is how they’re used in “proscribe” and “prescribe,” since both words refer to setting down rules to govern behavior. The difference is that “proscribe” means setting down rules about what not to do, while “prescribe” means setting rules for recommended behavior. Remember:

Proscribe = Forbid or make illegal

Prescribe = Recommend or set as a rule

Keep in mind that the “pro-” in “proscribe” is the same as in “prohibit,” which also means to “forbid” or “ban” something.

Likewise, if you think of a doctor’s prescription pad, you can remember that “prescribe” means “recommend a course of action”.

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