prescribe vs. proscribe

What is the difference between prescribe and proscribe?

The terms prescribe and proscribe are often confused due to their similarities in spelling, pronunciation, and usage.

When enunciated carefully, prescribe is pronounced /prɪˈskraɪb/, while proscribe is pronounced /prˈskraɪb/. However, in casual speech, both words tend to have their first vowels reduced to a schwa sound (/ə/), resulting in the same pronunciation: /prəˈskraɪb/.

There is also a bit of an overlap in how these terms are used in a sentence, though their meanings are quite different. Prescribe means “to establish or lay down as a rule, law, directive, or order,” or (most common in modern English) “to order a medicine or treatment or the use thereof.” Proscribe, on the other hand, means “to condemn, denounce, prohibit, forbid, or outlaw,” or “to banish or exile.” For example:

  • “The government prescribes the conditions by which states may form and enforce their own laws.”
  • “The doctor prescribed an experimental treatment to help combat the rare disease.”
  • “Behavior and lifestyles once proscribed by more puritanical societies are now accepted as the norm across the country.”
  • “The government proscribed the controversial group following their plan to demonstrate.”
In conjunction with the relative ubiquity of the medical meaning of prescribe, part of the problem might be due to the prefixes used to create proscribe. Because “pro-” is often associated with the meaning “in favor of” (as in pro-American, pro-peace, pro-business, etc.), the fact that it appears in a verb that means “condemn or forbid” can sometimes trip writers up.

Even more commonly confused than these two verbs, though, are their adjectival forms: prescriptive and proscriptive.

What is the difference between prescriptive and proscriptive?

While prescribe is a fairly common verb due to its use in medicine, the adjective prescriptive loses this association and in turn is much less common in everyday speech and writing.

Prescriptive means “of or related to the making of rules, laws, or directions.” In discussions about linguistics, it describes the establishment of rules or norms for how a language should or should not be used (compared to how a language is actually used in common, everyday speech or writing).

This usage is where the term often gets confused with the adjective proscriptive, which describes a person or group that prohibits or condemns something. Because prescriptive grammarians advise on what should or shouldn’t be used in language, they could also be considered proscriptive because they condemn certain things.

The difference can be very subtle, but it can change the structure of sentences in which the words appear. For example, consider the following two sentences:

  • Prescriptive linguists still maintain that whom should be used instead of who as an object of a verb or preposition.”
  • Proscriptive linguists still maintain that who cannot be used instead of whom as an object of a verb or preposition.”

Both sentences essentially mean the same thing, but their focus changes slightly depending on which adjective we choose to use. The sentence that uses prescriptive focuses on what is recommended or established as a rule, while the sentence that uses proscriptive focuses on what is not allowed.

Spelling Tricks and Tips

It may help to remember that proscribe and proscriptive deal with prohibiting something. If you are talking about presenting rules or laws, then prescribe or prescriptive are the correct terms.

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