Choosing the Right Word: Prescriptive vs Proscriptive.

The word popped out at me towards the end of a passage in which are listed the characteristics of an ideal husband through the eyes of a drippy 25-year-old woman. She wonders if her failure to find such a paragon is because she is being ‘too proscriptive’.

I knew at once it was the wrong word. Surely she means ‘prescriptive’, I thought.

I turned to my battered copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary where my belief was confirmed.

Proscriptive is from the verb Proscribe: to ban or render illegal.

Prescriptive is from the verb Prescribe: to offer as a solution or cure.

A physician writes a prescription. Law makers proscribe certain activities, like having too many people from other households as visitors to yours in the present circumstances. Ironically, such restrictions are based on medical advice, so either word could be used without censure*.

I wondered, not for the first time, why I’m bothering to read this book which has been disappointing so far. About the only worthwhile thing about it is the satisfaction of knowing that there are books out there in which the writing is far worse than mine. And this one is described as “The #1 bestseller and gripping Richard & Judy Book Club pick.” It has a rating on Amazon of 4.5 out of 5 stars computed from over 6,700 ratings in the 13 months since it was published by Cornerstone. I wonder how their editors missed such a glaring error.

I can’t help thinking that I ought to persevere, if only to discover what it is that so impressed Richard and Judy and all those reviewers.

*Censure belongs to another pairing with deceptively similar meanings which you misuse at peril of criticism from pedants like me who care about the English language:

Censor is another word for proscribe: to ban, or remove from publication, material deemed seditious or immoral.

Censure means to express disapproval, to blame or reprove. Which, you may have noticed, is what I am doing here.

Perhaps you can think of one or more other pairs of words, with near identical spelling, but different meanings that make them a trap for the unwary author. Feel free to tell me about them in the comments.

14 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Word: Prescriptive vs Proscriptive.

      1. I see what you mean! I always remember them as one means prudent, cautious, and the other means separate. The latter is the one where the ‘t’ separates the ee 😊

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I was going to say discrete and discreet, too, having once got them wrong. I read a very boring book all the way through because I couldn’t believe nothing was going to happen. Nothing did. It was by a very well-known bestselling author.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I’m still not sure which version of discreet is appropriate in which context. I’m going to need to lpook iot up because I used it in the scene I wrote this morning. My reading experience with this book is improving, mostly because there is a lot of foreshadowing of what I’m sure will prove to be a complex plot. Not so the charactrers, most of whom seem like stereotypes at this early stage.

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  2. Bestsellers don’t necessarily appeal to all readers. I’ve put aside many a bestseller, even winners of the Man Booker Prize, for failure to connect with the story or the characters after the first three chapters.
    When it comes to copy-editing mistakes, this may be due to the personnel cuts in the publishing industry to maintain profits or stay afloat.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Good points, Rosaliene. I’ve now read a bit more and the experience is definitely improving. The plot, rather than the characters, are what is keeping me ‘hooked’. It was touch and go after the first few chapters.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Life is short and there are countless other authors who would love your attention. I used to make myself read to the end, or almost to the end. If I really hated a book, I’d stop just before the final chapter–my punitive way of psychically transmitting, “your book is so bad that even though I’m this invested, I’m moving on.” Now, I stop if after reading more than 150 pages, I’m not enthused. Nothing against the author.

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  5. These are everywhere and worsening by the day! My husband, who is very mechanical and has rebuilt automobile engines, gets so perturbed by some of the more obvious and all too common errors such as break/brake.
    Ex: 1957 Chevy for sale engine runs good needs break work. (Run on sentence is always the way in ads) Break means to take a thing down into pieces either purposely or accidentally. Brake is the means by which you stop a moving vehicle.
    Their/there/they’re. Were/where/we’re. No one bothers to remotely try to edit in many instances, spelling words merely the way they sound. It ruins a book for me to have these kinds of errors as well as grammar errors. I feel like I’m trying to drive on a highway but I keep hitting speed bumps. It is far too distracting. Editing has become a non entity in the realm of publishing.

    Liked by 2 people

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