Prescribe and Proscribe

Commonly Confused Words

prescribe and proscribe
A doctor prescribing medicine. (Sean Russell/Getty Images)

The words prescribe and proscribe are similar in pronunciation but almost opposite in meaning.

Definitions

The verb prescribe means to recommend, establish, or lay down as a rule. Similarly, prescribe means to authorize a medical prescription.

The verb proscribe means to ban, forbid, or condemn.

See Prescriptive Grammar. Also see the usage notes below.

Examples

  • When doctors prescribe medicine for a child, they take the child's size and weight into account and adjust the dose accordingly.
     
  • "He read her temperature as 98.8. 'Very, very slight,' he told her. 'I prescribe sleep.'"
    (John Updike, "Married Life")
     
  • "Each year as many as two million Americans suffer from antibiotic-resistant illnesses, and 23,000 die as a result. Clearly, we need to get doctors to prescribe antibiotics more selectively. But how can this be done?"
    (Craig R. Fox et al., "How to Stop Overprescribing Antibiotics." The New York Times, March 25, 2016)
  • Many localities have passed ordinances that proscribe the use of leaf blowers.
     
  • "The First Amendment generally prevents government from proscribing speech, or even expressive conduct, because of disapproval of the ideas expressed."
    (Earl E. Pollock, The Supreme Court and American Democracy, 2009)
     

Usage Notes

  • "Prescribe is a much commoner word and means either 'issue a medical prescription' or 'recommend with authority,' as in the doctor prescribed antibiotics. Proscribe, on the other hand, is a formal word meaning 'condemn or forbid,' as in gambling was strictly proscribed by the authorities."
    (Maurice Waite, ed., Oxford Thesaurus of English, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009)
     
  • "These are almost direct opposites, and ought not to be confused. To prescribe is to define a remedy, to ordain, to decree. To proscribe is to prohibit, to forbid, to ban. When the Food and Drug Administration proscribed Laetrile, it meant that no doctor could lawfully prescribe it."
    (James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art. Andrews McMeel, 1984)


    Practice

    (a) It is illegal to pay doctors to _____ certain medicines to their patients.

    (b) China's laws severely _____ public demonstrations.

    Answers to Practice Exercises

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Prescribe and Proscribe

    (a) It is illegal to pay doctors to prescribe certain medicines to their patients.

    (b) China's laws severely proscribe public demonstrations.

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Prescribe and Proscribe." ThoughtCo, Jun. 16, 2016, thoughtco.com/prescribe-and-proscribe-1689595. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, June 16). Prescribe and Proscribe. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prescribe-and-proscribe-1689595 Nordquist, Richard. "Prescribe and Proscribe." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prescribe-and-proscribe-1689595 (accessed January 23, 2018).