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Malapropism Monday, Week 7 — Prescribe vs. Proscribe

Happy Monday, friends! For today’s Malapropism Monday I have just a short one — mixing up “prescribe” and “proscribe.” This is one I’ve seen online and in TV closed captioning, and it’s one that spell checkers won’t catch because they’re both real words. The problem is, they have vastly different — almost opposite — meanings.

Probably the more commonly-used word of the two is prescribe — when a medical professional makes an order, usually for a prescription medication, or for another treatment for an illness or condition. Notice the bolded e in prescription above? That’s a clue as to which word to use.

In addition, to prescribe can also mean to lay down laws or set down rules for something. Perhaps this is where the confusion comes in? The other word of the day, proscribe, means pretty much the opposite! To proscribe is to prohibit, ban, disallow, or outlaw something. Notice the bolded o in prohibit above? That’s the clue about when to use proscribe. Handy!

There’s only one letter of difference between the two words, and the pronunciation is almost the same, and they’re both actual words, so that’s why this mix-up happens.

Another way to remember the difference is to learn a few of the prefixes we use in English. One class I took in college was all about Greek and Latin roots in English, and to this day I remember tidbits I learned there, and it even helps me with spelling! In the future I should review the book we used in that class, because I think I still have it after several interstate moves — it was that useful!

Anyway, prescribe is formed by pre- (before) plus scribire (to write), both from Latin. The doctor has to write out the prescription before you can pick it up at the pharmacy. says proscribe comes from late Middle English by way of Latin proscribire (to publish in writing, confiscate, outlaw). The pro- prefix can be a bit more confusing because there are a lot of possible meanings, but in this case, I just picture a king sending forth his proclamations and outlawing the bad guys. Does that make me strange? Oh, well.

In the future, I hope you don’t get confused when the doctor prescribes the necessary medicines and proscribes junk food and smoking! Got it?