Question: “Dear Grammar Guy: I’ve seen several friends make Facebook posts within the past few months about ‘proscriptions’ or ‘proscription medications.’ It doesn’t have an alternate meaning that’s the same as ‘prescription,’ does it?”
Answer: Thanks for the question! Since you saw this mix-up on Facebook, I’m willing to give your friends the benefit of the doubt and say they may have a cell phone’s autocorrect feature to thank for it. That being said, for those who are interested, I think we can dig into this one a bit.
We’re all familiar with what a prescription is: a written message from a doctor that officially tells someone to use a medicine. It can also be used more generally to indicate something that is suggested as a way to do something or make something happen. For example, a tech support representative might prescribe changing your password if your e-mail has been sending spam.
A proscription, on the other hand, is something almost entirely the opposite: an imposed restraint or restriction; something you shouldn’t do or aren’t allowed to do. To proscribe is to prohibit or forbid, or to make something illegal.
“Proscribe” isn’t a word you see frequently outside of legal contexts, while “prescribe” is used in both medical and legal settings (Many states have laws prescribing minimum sentences for certain crimes, for example).
The best way to remember the difference between the two is to stick with what you’re familiar with. A prescription is something a doctor tells you to do, and since “proscription” is an antonym of “prescription,” it must mean the opposite – something you shouldn’t do.
As to avoiding autocorrect errors: I have no advice. Even the Grammar Guy is caught up from time to time by his know-it-all cell phone.