Usage Notes

On 'Prescribe' and 'Proscribe'

Just what the doctor ordered (or forbade you from doing).

What to Know

Prescribe means to instruct or dictate a rule for others to follow. A doctor prescribes medicine for treatment. Proscribe, although it sounds similar, is the opposite and means to forbid something.

doctor writing prescription

Take two usage articles and call us in the morning.

The Meaning of 'Prescribe'

To prescribe means to lay down or dictate a rule or instruction for others to follow. To take a common example, a doctor prescribes a medicine as a remedy for an ailment. But there are other uses:

Now, as the assistant fire management officer - or "burn boss" - for the Karuk Tribe in Northern California, Rubalcaba's job is to ignite and control prescribed burns. The forest management technique guides the destruction of vegetation that could fuel future wildfires.
— Anton L. Delgado and Dustin Patar, ABCNews.com, 14 Aug. 2019

Both the Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health bylaws and state law prescribe how a health officer can be removed or approved.

The SRHD Board bylaw states “the board of health shall approve the appointment and termination of a District Health Officer.”… State law also prescribes protocols for removing a health officer, including a hearing about the reasons for that person’s removal.
— Arielle Dreher, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.), 2 Nov. 2020

Prescribe comes from the Latin praescribere, meaning "to write at the beginning, dictate, order." It attaches the prefix prae- ("before") to scribere, meaning "to write."

The Meaning of 'Proscribe'

Another verb in English, proscribe, also derives from a Latin prefix meaning "before" (pro-) and scribere. But proscribe has a meaning essentially the opposite of that of prescribe. To proscribe something means to forbid it as harmful or unlawful.

Here is the potter David Drake, who, at a time when literacy was proscribed for enslaved people, inscribed his work with rhyming couplets about family separation in slavery (“I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all — and every nation”).
— Parul Seghal, The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2020

The UK Parliament is set to pass new rules classifying Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Parts of the Lebanese organisation have been proscribed since 2001, with its military wing banned since 2008.
BBC.com, 25 Feb. 2019

In the 15th century, proscribe had a more specific legal application, referring to the action of publishing the name of a person who had been condemned, outlawed, or banished. Hence its derivation from the Latin word for "to write" that it shared with prescribe.

Prescribe is generally the more common of the two words, and anyone who uses the formal verb proscribe in their regular discourse is usually keen to the distinction. Keeping them separate, therefore, is often more difficult for the reader or listener (especially since they sound alike when spoken quickly). Context will usually tell you if an action is being ordered (prescribed) or prohibited (proscribed).



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