Prose (PROHzuh) is written language that appears in its ordinary form, without metrical structure or line breaks. This definition is an example of prose writing, as are most textbooks and instruction manuals, emails and letters, fiction writing, newspaper and magazine articles, research papers, conversations, and essays.
The word prose first entered English circa 1300 and meant “story, narration.” It came from the Old French prose (13th century), via the Latin prosa oratio, meaning “straightforward or direct speech.” Its meaning of “prose-writing; not poetry” arrived in the mid-14th century.
Types of Prose Writing
Prose writing can appear in many forms. These are some of the most common:
- Heroic prose: Literary works of heroic prose, which may be written down or recited, employ many of the same tropes found in the oral tradition. Examples of this would include the Norse Prose Edda or other legends and tales.
- Nonfictional prose: This is prose based on facts, real events, and real people, such as biography, autobiography, history, or journalism.
- Prose fiction: Literary works in this style are imagined. Parts may be based on or inspired by real-life events or people, but the work itself is the product of an author’s imagination. Examples of this would include novels and short stories.
- Purple Prose: The term purple prose carries a negative connotation. It refers to prose that is too elaborate, ornate, or flowery. It’s categorized by excessive use of adverbs, adjectives, and bad metaphors.
Prose and Verse
While both are styles of writing, there are certain key differences between prose, which is used in standard writing, and verse, which is typically used for poetry.
As stated, prose follows the natural patterns of speech. It’s formed through common grammatical structures, such as sentences that are built into paragraphs. For example, in the opening paragraph of Diana Spechler’s New York Times article “Among the Healers,” she writes:
We arrive at noon and take our numbers. The more motivated, having traveled from all over Mexico, began showing up at 3 a.m. About half of the 80 people ahead of us sit in the long waiting room on benches that line the walls, while others stand clustered outside or kill the long hours wandering around Tonalá, a suburb of Guadalajara known for its artisans, its streets edged with handmade furniture, vases as tall as men, mushrooms constructed of shiny tiles. Rafael, the healer, has been receiving one visitor after another since 5. That’s what he does every day except Sunday, every week of his life.
Although Spechler utilizes some of the literary devices often associated with verse, such as strong imagery and simile, she doesn’t follow any poetic conventions. This piece of writing is comprised of sentences, which means it is written in prose.
Unlike prose, verse is formed through patterns of meter, rhyme, line breaks, and stanzaic structure—all aspects that relate to writing poems. For example, the free verse poem “I am Trying to Break Your Heart” by Kevin Young begins:
I am hoping
to hang your head
on my wall
While this poem doesn’t utilize meter or rhyme, it’s categorized as verse because it’s composed in short two-line stanzaic units called couplets. The remainder of the poem is comprised of couplets and the occasional monostich (one-line stanza).
Although verse and prose are different, there is a form that combines the two: prose poetry. Poems in this vein contains poetic devices, such as imagery, white space, figurative language, sound devices, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and heightened emotions. However, it’s written in prose form—sentences and paragraphs—instead of stanzas.
Examples of Prose in Literature
1. José Olivarez “Ars Poetica”
In this prose poem, Olivarez writes:
Migration is derived from the word “migrate,” which is a verb defined by Merriam-Webster as “to move from one country, place, or locality to another.” Plot twist: migration never ends. My parents moved from Jalisco, México to Chicago in 1987. They were dislocated from México by capitalism, and they arrived in Chicago just in time to be dislocated by capitalism. Question: is migration possible if there is no “other” land to arrive in. My work: to imagine. My family started migrating in 1987 and they never stopped. I was born mid-migration. I’ve made my home in that motion. Let me try again: I tried to become American, but America is toxic. I tried to become Mexican, but México is toxic. My work: to do more than reproduce the toxic stories I inherited and learned. In other words: just because it is art doesn’t mean it is inherently nonviolent. My work: to write poems that make my people feel safe, seen, or otherwise loved. My work: to make my enemies feel afraid, angry, or otherwise ignored. My people: my people. My enemies: capitalism. Susan Sontag: “victims are interested in the representation of their own sufferings.” Remix: survivors are interested in the representation of their own survival. My work: survival. Question: Why poems? Answer:
Olivarez crafted this poem in prose form rather than verse. He uses literary techniques such as surprising syntax, white space, heightened emotion, and unexpected turns to heighten the poetic elements of his work, but he doesn’t utilize verse tools, such as meter, rhyme, line breaks, or stanzaic structure.
2. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Melville’s novel is a classic work of prose fiction, often referenced as The Great American Novel. It opens with the following lines:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
3. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark
Playing in the Dark, which examines American literature through the lens of race, freedom, and individualism, was originally delivered while Morrison was a guest speaker at Harvard University. She begins:
These chapters put forth an argument for extending the study of American literature into what I hope will be a wider landscape. I want to draw a map, so to speak, of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure, and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World—without the mandate for conquest.
Further Resources on Prose
David Lehman edited a wonderful anthology of prose poetry called Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present.
For fans of prose in fiction, the editors of Modern Library put together a list of the 100 greatest novels.
Nonfiction prose fans may enjoy Longform, which curates and links to new and classic nonfiction from around the web.