I. What is a Prose?
Prose is just non-verse writing. Pretty much anything other than poetry counts as prose: this article, that textbook in your backpack, the U.S. Constitution, Harry Potter – it’s all prose. The basic defining feature of prose is its lack of line breaks:
In verse, the line ends
when the writer wants it to, but in prose
you just write until you run out of room and then start a new line.
Unlike most other literary devices, prose has a negative definition: in other words, it’s defined by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. (It isn’t verse.) As a result, we have to look pretty closely at verse in order to understand what prose is.
II. Types of Prose
Prose usually appears in one of these three forms.
- Essays: You’re probably familiar with essays. An essay makes some kind of argument about a specific question or topic. Essays are written in prose because it’s what modern readers are accustomed to.
- Novels/short stories: When you set out to tell a story in prose, it’s called a novel or short story (depending on length). Stories can also be told through verse, but it’s less common nowadays. Books like Harry Potter and the Fault in Our Stars are written in prose.
- Nonfiction books. If it’s true, it’s nonfiction. Essays are a kind of nonfiction, but not the only kind. Sometimes, a nonfiction book is just written for entertainment (e.g. David Sedaris’s nonfiction comedy books), or to inform (e.g. a textbook), but not to argue. Again, there’s plenty of nonfiction verse, too, but most nonfiction is written in prose.
III. Examples of Prose
The Bible is usually printed in prose form, unlike the Islamic Qur’an, which is printed in verse. This difference suggests one of the differences between the two ancient cultures that produced these texts: the classical Arabs who first wrote down the Qur’an were a community of poets, and their literature was much more focused on verse than on stories. The ancient Hebrews, by contrast, were more a community of storytellers than poets, so their holy book was written in a more narrative prose form.
Although poetry is almost always written in verse, there is such a thing as “prose poetry.” Prose poetry lacks line breaks, but still has the rhythms of verse poetry and focuses on the sound of the words as well as their meaning. It’s the same as other kinds of poetry except for its lack of line breaks.
IV. The Importance of Prose
Prose is ever-present in our lives, and we pretty much always take it for granted. It seems like the most obvious, natural way to write. But if you stop and think, it’s not totally obvious. After all, people often speak in short phrases with pauses in between – more like lines of poetry than the long, unbroken lines of prose. It’s also easier to read verse, since it’s easier for the eye to follow a short line than a long, unbroken one.
For all of these reasons, it might seem like verse is actually a more natural way of writing! And indeed, we know from archaeological digs that early cultures usually wrote in verse rather than prose. The dominance of prose is a relatively modern trend.
So why do we moderns prefer prose? The answer is probably just that it’s more efficient! Without line breaks, you can fill the entire page with words, meaning it takes less paper to write the same number of words. Before the industrial revolution, paper was very expensive, and early writers may have given up on poetry because it was cheaper to write prose.
V. Examples of Prose in Literature
Although Shakespeare was a poet, his plays are primarily written in prose. He loved to play around with the difference between prose and verse, and if you look closely you can see the purpose behind it: the “regular people” in his plays usually speak in prose – their words are “prosaic” and therefore don’t need to be elevated. Heroic and noble characters, by contrast, speak in verse to highlight the beauty and importance of what they have to say.
Flip open Moby-Dick to a random page, and you’ll probably find a lot of prose. But there are a few exceptions: short sections written in verse. There are many theories as to why Herman Melville chose to write his book this way, but it probably was due in large part to Shakespeare. Melville was very interested in Shakespeare and other classic authors who used verse more extensively, and he may have decided to imitate them by including a few verse sections in his prose novel.
VI. Examples of Prose in Pop Culture
Philosophy has been written in prose since the time of Plato and Aristotle. If you look at a standard philosophy book, you’ll find that it has a regular paragraph structure, but no creative line breaks like you’d see in poetry. No one is exactly sure why this should be true – after all, couldn’t you write a philosophical argument with line breaks in it? Some philosophers, like Nietzsche, have actually experimented with this. But it hasn’t really caught on, and the vast majority of philosophy is still written in prose form.
In the Internet age, we’re very familiar with prose – nearly all blogs and emails are written in prose form. In fact, it would look pretty strange if this were not the case!
Imagine if you had a professor
who wrote class emails
in verse form, with odd
line breaks in the middle
of the email.
VII. Related Terms
Verse is the opposite of prose: it’s the style of writing
that has line breaks.
Most commonly used in poetry, it tends to have rhythm and rhyme but doesn’t necessarily have these features. Anything with artistic line breaks counts as verse.
18th-century authors saw poetry as a more elevated form of writing – it was a way of reaching for the mysterious and the heavenly. In contrast, prose was for writing about ordinary, everyday topics. As a result, the adjective “prosaic” (meaning prose-like) came to mean “ordinary, unremarkable.”
Prosody is the pleasing sound of words when they come together. Verse and prose can both benefit from having better prosody, since this makes the writing more enjoyable to a reader.