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Language Arts

Proscribe vs Prescribe



This article defines the words "proscribe" and "prescribe," looks at the use of "proscribe" vs. "prescribe," and gives tips on how to differentiate "proscribe" from "prescribe." Keep reading for more information on "proscribe" and "prescribe."

Sorting out these two words is best done with a story.

Proscribe

Once upon a time, the Latin verb proscribere, which comes from pro + scribere (to write before), meant that something was put up for sale by means of a public advertisement. Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 B.C. - 78 B.C.) changed that. Beginning his career in the army, he became a Roman general and gained a reputation for butchery after having 8.000 captives killed.

In 82 B.C., he invented a new way to wreak vengeance on his enemies. The country was recovering from a civil war, and Sulla appeared before an assembly of the people and told them he would punish the followers of the losing party.

Having gained their approval, Sulla went about drawing up a list of those whom he wished dead. The list was posted in the public forum. The list granted immunity to anyone who killed a person on it, and the person’s property was taken and publicly sold - often at a low price - to Sulla’s intimates. In addition, anyone who either killed or gave up to authorities a person named on the list was given a reward. On the other hand, sheltering a proscribed person (called a proscripti) was punishable by death.

When Sulla had himself declared dictator the same year, this method of advertising his enemies and selling their property turned up in legislation, using Sulla’s preferred name for it: proscription. The law is known as lex Cornelia or lex Valeria. Because proscription came to be viewed as a biological corruption passed on between generations, the descendants of those who had been proscribed were barred from public office.

Flash forward to 43 B.C. Antonius, Caesar, and Lepidus formed a triumvirate and found themselves short of money for their wars. So they declared a second proscription. They listed political enemies, personal enemies, enemies of their intimates, and people who simply had the misfortune to be extremely wealthy. The triumvirate had about two thousand knights and three hundred Roman senators killed.

Today, proscribe, a transitive verb, can mean “to condemn,” “to prohibit,” “to banish someone,” or “to publish the name of a person to declare that s/he is outlawed.”  For example:

Don’t you know that using cell phones during class is proscribed?

The baker has been proscribed and is to leave the town within one day and never return.’’

The orator and Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was proscribed and killed by the triumvirate in 43 B.C.

It is not hard to connect these meanings to the actions of Sulla and the triumvirs. To strengthen the connection even more, look at the difference in spelling of proscribe and prescribe: See the letters R-O? You can connect that with Rome, where the word came from and where the story of proscription took place. Proscribe is pronounced /pro SKRIBE/.

Prescribe

Prescribe comes from the Latin verb prescribere, which comes from pre + scribere (to write at the beginning; to order). As an intransitive verb it can mean “to give a rule” or “to write a medical order.” As a transitive verb, it can mean “to use one’s authority to provide a guide” or “to order the use of a remedy.” Here are examples:

Intransitive:

The brothers of the monastery will do as the abbot prescribes.

You’ve made a mistake: I’m the nurse; it’s the doctor who prescribes.

Transitive:

Her mentor prescribed a period of rest and introspection for Janice after her accident.

My doctor makes it her policy only to prescribe antibiotics after a culture has demonstrated that the infection is bacteriological.

Prescribe is pronounced /pri SKRIBE/. You can remember the spelling because what the doctor prescribes, speaking informally, is meds. The only vowel in meds is e, and that’s the same one you find in the first syllable of prescribed, differentiating it from proscribed.