I was searching for usages of the verb prescribe, in conjunction with the preposition upon, thinking the two of them might serve as a slightly milder alternative for impose, which indeed seems possible, judging from the scarce samples I found, one of whom is this:

'Tis sure a practice that savors much of pedantry; a reserve of puerility we have not shaken off from school; where, being seasoned with minor sentences, by a neglect of higher enquiries, they prescribe upon our riper ears, and never are worn out, but with our memories.

[Sir Thomas Browne]


I think I think it's brilliant, but I'm not really positive I'm interpreting it correctly.

Is it "minor sentences", as in, say, time that we are forced to serve, that teachers ("they") impose upon us during our riper years, and is it the same minor sentences that leave their mark, so to speak, until we've accumulated new memories through living?

And how is "reserve" meant? As a "stock" of puerility, so to speak, or as a puerile reluctance?


2 Answers 2


The "practice" Browne deprecates is the habit of attributing self-evident truths to the authority of Classical rhetors and poets by quoting scraps of lesser works. This pedantry is something we retain (a reserve) from our schooling: in Browne's day students were expected to maintain a stock of these "minor sentences" (sentence with the sense of Latin sententia, "aphorism") to ornament their own written and spoken essays.

(Think of Hamlet hurrying to set down in his notebook what he has learned from the Ghost—That one may smile and smile and be a villain. As Horatio later observes, it needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this sort of thing, which is more or less Browne's point, too.)

When we are grown, Browne says, the sentences we have memorized continue to prescribe upon our ears (serve as authoritative models for our judgment of texts), and only vanish from our consciousness when our memories fail (presumably in old age).

  • Ah, so it's sentences, as in doctrines, so to speak, but of scant value. (For a moment there I thought it was sentences, as in mere time that we are sentenced to serve, as in prison so in school...) And the reserve is indeed meant as a "stock", IOW an accumulation of trivial concerns (pedantry),,, As for the memories, I think I initially misinterpreted them as the agent of "wear out" (as in by our memories), while they are merely meant as yet another thing whose "wearing out" will coincide with that of the minor sentences. Right? [Nice answer, BTW]
    – m.a.a.
    Nov 30, 2016 at 13:17
  • @m.a.a. I think Browne uses sentences mostly in the sense "pithy expression", though there are perhaps overtones of "doctrine". And the memories piece is more like "We can't escape the hold of the prescripts until we get old and forget them along with everything else". Nov 30, 2016 at 14:19

Sort of. To "prescribe upon" can sort of be thought of as "directing upon/towards" by some sort of a preordained standard.

The idea seems to be that the practice that makes you enjoy being a know-it-all is an artefact of youth and immaturity (i.e. a reserve of puerility) which follows you into adulthood and after you've finished with your schooling. It's a result of the fact that you end up absorbing trivia by neglecting serious and profound questions (i.e. you are seasoned with minor sentences, neglecting the higher enquiries) which are directed at/imposed upon young ears. Then I guess that that creates an impression which only fades with age and experience.


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