Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Prescribe, subscribe and proscribe

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Cover of the January 1948 (vol. 29 issue 1) is...
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Now, I don’t read Esquire (‘The world’s most upmarket men’s magazine’ as it is pleased to call itself), but I happened to be looking over the shoulder of someone who does, and spotted this in the May edition:

I don’t exactly prescribe to the ‘more of them to love’ mantra, but I do prescribe to the truism ‘more of them to manipulate’.

I won’t trouble you with the far from upmarket context of the piece, but what about that word ‘prescribe’? That, surely, should be ‘subscribe’.

‘Prescribe’ is usually used to describe what a doctor does when recommending and authorising a medicine. It also means to state authoritatively that something must be done. See Oxford Dictionaries.

‘Subscribe’ has a few different meanings: See Oxford Dictionaries.  In the case of the Esquire piece,  ‘subscribe to’ should have been used to mean ‘agree with’.

I haven’t seen this particular error before; it’s far more common to confuse ‘prescribe’ with ‘proscribe’. The latter means to forbid or denounce. See Oxford Dictionaries on this particular confusion.

More commonly confused words and phrases

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