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[15-16 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]
Quick takeaway points
- Using the construction ascribe to a view, idea, etc. in the way shown in the examples under the next heading is generally considered a mistake.
- It appears from comments on the Merriam-Webster website that some people were taught at school that this construction is in fact correct.
- The use of the correct subscribe to (= support, endorse), derives clearly and logically from that word’s earliest use of putting your signature to something, as explained at 4 below.
- Lincoln used ascribe to in his inaugural presidential address. See 6.2.
1. What is the issue?
Take a sentence such as this from a 2006 issue of the Globe and Mail (Canada)
“In the twisted minds of those who ascribe to this militant ideology, Canada has become fair game.”
“He doesn’t necessarily ascribe to the philosophy of ‘bigger is better’ or featuring loud colors or ‘sale’ logos to attract attention.”
Art Business News, 2003
The correct verb in both cases is subscribe.
“Yes, we know,” you may say: “you’re teaching your grandmother to suck eggs“. Nevertheless, enough people commit the mistake to make it worth highlighting.
In fact, from a few comments on the Merriam-Webster online site, it seems that some people were actively taught by their schoolteachers that ascribe to is correct in this context, and that subscribe to is wrong.
2. 1 What is the correct use of ascribe to?
As Cobuild defines it, the word nowadays has three core meanings. Note that they all require the preposition to, and have a direct object and an obligatory prepositional object. In other words, you cannot say he *ascribed his success. [Most examples are from the Online Oxford Dictionary].
- If you ascribe an event or condition to a particular cause, you say or consider that it was caused by that thing:
He ascribed Jane’s short temper to her upset stomach;
He ascribed the poor results to poverty and the lack of resources at most schools.
(Attribute works as a synonym for this (and the next meanings) or give the credit to, if it is a good thing, such as success.)
- If you ascribe something such as a quotation or a work of art to someone (my amendment: or to some period) you say that they said it or created it, (my amendment: or that it was said or created in that period):
a quotation ascribed to Thomas Cooper;
He mistakenly ascribes the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ to Charles Darwin.
- if you ascribe a quality to someone, you consider that they possess it:
Tough-mindedness is a quality commonly ascribed to top bosses;
I don’t want to ascribe human reactions to my dog, because that spoils the joy of seeing things from a dog perspective.
(See 6.2 for other, historical examples)
2.2 With which meaning of subscribe is ascribe confused?
Subscribe has many meanings, but the one in question is meaning 2 in the Online Oxford Dictionary:
(subscribe to) Express or feel agreement with (an idea or proposal):
Or maybe he subscribes to the postmodern idea that truth is a social construct;
We prefer to subscribe to an alternative explanation.
Closish synonyms for this meaning are agree with, support, back, accept, believe in and endorse.
3. What do usage guides say?
There is no mention of it in the excellent Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage, nor in the equally excellent Cambridge Guide to English Usage. The current (3rd) edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage does not include it either, but I have added it to my revision for the 4th edition.
4. Can etymology help?
Rather obviously, both words contain the element -scribe, meaning “write”, imported ultimately from Latin, and all around us in words such as describe, inscribe, and so forth. The sub- element is the Latin for “under”, as in submarine, sub-editor, etc. So, literally, if you subscribe something, you put your name under it. The word was directly borrowed from Latin, and its first recorded use is as just described:
This is my last Will, subscribed with my own Hand, R.H.—1415
That meaning is defined by the OED as follows: “To put one’s signature or other identifying mark upon (a document), esp. at the end or foot, typically to signify consent or agreement, or to declare that one is a witness; to signify assent to or compliance with (something), by signing one’s name; to attest (a particular viewpoint or position) by one’s signature”.
If you want a mnemonic for which of the two words under discussion is appropriate in which context, it may help to remember support, which—ultimately, in Latin—contains the same prefix—sub, i.e. “under”—as subscribe. If you subscribe to a view, theory, etc., you do indeed support it.
5. How often does the mistake happen?
[Skip this if you don’t want the “science” bit]
It is true that it is not the commonest of mistakes, but then neither verb is particularly frequent in its own right. Subscribe (the specific form, not the lemma) just scrapes into the seven thousand most frequent words in English (in the Oxford English Corpus), which make up 90% of all texts: it occurs just under 7 times per million words of texts; ascribed (again, the token, not the lemma) comes in as the 12,200th most common form in English, occurring less than 3 times per million words.
Since the mistake most often occurs in collocation with words such as view and theory, and others in their lexical field, the only measure I can easily produce for its frequency is to compare the collocations subscribe to…theory and ascribe to…theory (within a five-word frame to the right). The first occurs 471 times in the OEC, the second 18 – i.e. in under 4 per cent of cases.
6.1 Biblical and Lincolnian uses
Many people on the Merriam-Webster website looked up the word because it is used in Psalm 29 in some versions of the Bible:
1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor
New Oxford Annotated Bible
(It is worth noting that the Authorized Version (King James) does not use ascribe in this context, but the more Anglo-Saxon Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, etc.
Abraham Lincoln also used it in his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861):
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him?
6.2 Other historical examples
The OED subdivides ascribe into 11 senses, of which six were already labelled obsolete as long ago as 1885, when the entry was compiled.
It was first used in English in the Wycliffite Bible, and is among the earliest ten per cent of words the OED records.
On its first appearance it was used broadly in the first meaning discussed above:
Lest…to my name the victorie be ascrived—2 Sam. xii. 28, before 1382
(The spelling with v mirrors the Old French form from which it was borrowed. In the 16th century it was Latinized to a letter b.)
Other examples in this use, as shown below, range from Sir Thomas More to Samuel Johnson:
- Al which miracles al those blessed saintes do ascribe vnto the worke of god.—Thomas More, Heresyes IV, in Wks. 286/2, 1528
- The same Græcians did often ascribe madnesse to the operation of the Eumenides.—Hobbes, Leviathan I. viii, 37, 1651
- This Speech is…the finest that is ascribed to Satan in the whole Poem.—J. Addison, Spectator No. 321. ¶6, 1711
- We usually ascribe good, but impute evil.—Johnson, The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language 25, 1746