Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Proscribe with Caution

Wendalyn Nichols, editor of the Copyediting newsletter, offers useful tips to copy editors and anyone else who prizes clear and orderly writing. Here she looks at some pitfalls in using the word proscribe.

I've been immersing myself in the world of ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching again, and ran across the following sentence in a lesson plan on teaching negation: "Most Germanic languages, including English, proscribe against the use of double negatives."

The writer wasn't using the sense of proscribe meaning 'condemn' that we find in the following sentence I pulled from Google News:

    It is one thing to proscribe selfishness but quite another to prescribe the common good.

Nor was the writer using the sense of banishing or outlawing a person or group, which is how proscribe is used in the following comment about the British National Party:

    If politicians do not want BNP members to appear on television they should proscribe the organization.

The sense that is closest to what the writer meant was that of 'prohibit' or 'forbid', which is still pretty strong, as the following sentence demonstrates:

    Such laws are designed to minimize the destruction of life and property, proscribe cruel treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war.

But in using proscribe to talk about what languages do or don't allow, the writer made two errors, one lexical and one grammatical.

First, proscribe is not a synonym for do not allow. In all of its meanings, it's stronger than that; 'prohibit' is the mildest of them. English and other Germanic languages don't prohibit or forbid the use of double negatives, as if this were a law one could write; the types of double negatives the writer was talking about (as opposed to the one in "I don't not like him. I just don't quite like him, either") have simply fallen out of use and are now considered nonstandard in most contexts.

Second, proscribe is a transitive verb; using it with against would make it intransitive. Doing so violates the meaning, as well: the concept of forbidding or prohibiting against something is close to being a double negative itself.

Other errors in the use of proscribe are demonstrated in more sentences I found when I was searching Google News. In each of the following, dictate is meant; there is interference from the meaning of prescribe:

    California being the latest?to more strictly proscribe the conditions farm animals can be raised under?

    No longer would the Government proscribe how money would be spent by local authorities.

    To be honest we're kind of neutral about how people access our content and don't feel we should proscribe how people should be watching Sky.

And another error, this time another grammatical one, is to use "proscribe someone from doing something":

    SAG's Constitution does not unambiguously proscribe the Board from abolishing committees by a simple majority vote.

    Ancient Shinto beliefs proscribe women from entering the straw dohyo sumo ring.

The verb does not take this complementation pattern (although both prohibit and prevent do). It takes a direct object, which means that fixing the above sentences would result in the following, more awkward wording: "?proscribe the Board's abolishing of committees?"; "?proscribe women's entering?" If changing the complementation pattern results in such awkwardness, fix the sentences by changing proscribe to prohibit, or by recasting them.

Wendalyn Nichols is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and a commissioning editor of dictionaries for Cambridge University Press. She began as a freelance researcher, writer, and editor, then became a lexicographer and editor with the Longman Group. For four years she was the editorial director of Random House Reference and Information Publishing. She lives in New York, New York with her husband and young daughter. Follow her on Twitter @WendalynNichols and @Copyediting.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 18th 2009, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I really thought the legitimate meaning "forbid" worked OK with the sentence; "proscribe against" was certainly wrong.

The sentence reminded me of a good story. Linguists were assembled at a break-out session listening to a grammarian holding forth on the use of double negative.

"In some languages a double negative equals a negative," he said. "In other languages a double negative equals a positive. But in no language does a double positive equal a negative."

A wise guy in the back of the room respond, "Yeah Yeah!"
Wednesday November 18th 2009, 2:35 PM
Comment by: Paul C. (Kaneville, IL)
I cannot recall ever using the word proscribe. I like words and willingly spend time looking up the meanings of archaic and little-used words—not that proscribe meets either of those labels—when I write and especially when I read. I’m not one to complain about an author’s word choices, as many people do. I look at unfamiliar words and words that are rarely used as opportunities to educate, enlighten, reconnect, and entertain. Call me an etymologist if you choose. I like that word.
Wednesday November 18th 2009, 5:09 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Nice comment, Paul!

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