Writing

What Is Prose? Learn About the Differences Between Prose and Poetry With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 22, 2019 • 3 min read

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In writing, prose refers to any written work that follows a basic grammatical structure (think words and phrases arranged into sentences and paragraphs). This stands out from works of poetry, which follow a metrical structure (think lines and stanzas). Prose simply means language that follows the natural patterns found in everyday speech.

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What Is Prose?

Prose is verbal or written language that follows the natural flow of speech. It is the most common form of writing, used in both fiction and non-fiction. Prose comes from the Latin “prosa oratio,” meaning “straightforward.”

4 Common Types of Prose

Prose can vary depending according to style and purpose. There are four distinct types of prose that writers use:

  1. Nonfictional prose. Prose that is a true story or factual account of events or information is nonfiction. Textbooks, newspaper articles, and instruction manuals all fall into this category. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, composed entirely of journal excerpts, recounts the young teen’s experience of hiding with her family in Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II.
  2. Fictional prose. A literary work of fiction. This is the most popular type of literary prose, used in novels and short stories, and generally has characters, plot, setting, and dialogue.
  3. Heroic prose. A literary work that is either written down or preserved through oral tradition, but is meant to be recited. Heroic prose is usually a legend or fable. The twelfth-century Irish tales revolving around the mythical warrior Finn McCool are an example of heroic prose.
  4. Prose poetry. Poetry written in prose form. This literary hybrid can sometimes have rhythmic and rhyming patterns. French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote prose poems, including “Be Drunk” which starts off: “And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room.”
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What Is the Function of Prose in Writing?

George Orwell was known for his attitude toward plain language. He once said: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Prose can also:

  • Fulfill a story’s promise. In literature, the basic purpose of prose in writing is to convey an idea, deliver information, or tell a story. Prose is the way a writer fulfills her basic promise to a reader to deliver a story with characters, setting, conflict, a plot, and a final payoff.
  • Create a voice. Each writer has their own way of using language, called a writer’s voice. Using prose in different ways helps writers craft and show off this voice. Take Charles Dickens’ voice in David Copperfield as an example: “New thoughts and hopes were whirling through my mind, and all the colors of my life were changing.”
  • Builds rapport through familiarity. Prose is often conversational in tone. This familiarity helps connect readers to a story and its characters. Jane Austen was known for her straightforward, accessible prose. Take this line from Emma: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

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What Is the Difference Between Prose and Poetry?

Prose and poetry both have unique qualities that distinguish one from the other.

Prose

  • Follows natural patterns of speech and communication
  • Has a grammatical structure with sentences and paragraphs
  • Uses everyday language
  • Sentences and thoughts continue across lines

Poetry

  • Traditional poetry has deliberate patterns, such as rhythm and rhyme
  • Many poems have a formal metrical structure—repeating patterns of beats
  • Incorporates more figurative language
  • Poems visually stand out on a page with narrow columns, varying line lengths, and more white space on a page than prose
  • Deliberate line breaks

2 Examples of Prose in Literature

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Authors will sometimes complement prose with literary techniques and devices to create different effects.

  1. William Shakespeare, As You Like It. Shakespeare plays with language, complementing prose with poetry to distinguish between social classes. For example, characters from the lower classes in the play speak in prose: “Truly, thou art damned, like an ill-roasted egg all on one side.” By contrast, the nobility speak in poetic verse: ”What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?”
  2. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. Wells describes a world invaded by aliens from Mars with such detailed prose that it terrified people when it was first published. The story reads almost like nonfiction prose: “Above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes—were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.”

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