Definition of Prose

Prose is a communicative style that sounds natural and uses grammatical structure. Prose is the opposite of verse, or poetry, which employs a rhythmic structure that does not mimic ordinary speech. There is, however, some poetry called “prose poetry” that uses elements of prose while adding in poetic techniques such as heightened emotional content, high frequency of metaphors, and juxtaposition of contrasting images. Most forms of writing and speaking are done in prose, including short stories and novels, journalism, academic writing, and regular conversations.

The word “prose” comes from the Latin expression prosa oratio, which means straightforward or direct speech. Due to the definition of prose referring to straightforward communication, “prosaic” has come to mean dull and commonplace discourse. When used as a literary term, however, prose does not carry this connotation.

Common Examples of Prose

Everything that is not poetry is prose. Therefore, every utterance or written word that is not in the form of verse is an example of prose. Here are some different formats that prose comes in:

  • Casual dialogue: “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, how are you?” “Fine, thanks.”
  • Oration: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. –Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Dictionary definition: Prose (n)—the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse.
  • Philosophical texts: Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. –Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Journalism: State and local officials were heavily criticized for their response to the January 2014 storm that created a traffic nightmare and left some motorists stranded for 18 hours or more.

Significance of Prose in Literature

Much of the world’s literature is written in a prose style. However, this was not always the case. Ancient Greek dramas, religious texts, and old epic poetry were all usually written in verse. Verse is much more highly stylized than prose. In literature, prose became popular as a way to express more realistic dialogues and present narration in a more straightforward style. With very few exceptions, all novels and short stories are written in prose.

Examples of Prose in Literature

Example #1

I shall never be fool enough to turn knight-errant. For I see quite well that it’s not the fashion now to do as they did in the olden days when they say those famous knights roamed the world.

(Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes)

Don Quixote is often considered the forerunner of the modern novel, and here we can see Cervantes’s prose style as being very direct with some sarcasm.

Example #2

The ledge, where I placed my candle, had a few mildewed books piled up in one corner; and it was covered with writing scratched on the paint. This writing, however, was nothing but a name repeated in all kinds of characters, large and small—Catherine Earnshaw, here and there varied to Catherine Heathcliff, and then again to Catherine Linton. In vapid listlessness I leant my head against the window, and continued spelling over Catherine Earnshaw—Heathcliff—Linton, till my eyes closed; but they had not rested five minutes when a glare of white letters started from the dark, as vivid as spectres—the air swarmed with Catherines; and rousing myself to dispel the obtrusive name, I discovered my candle wick reclining on one of the antique volumes, and perfuming the place with an odour of roasted calf-skin.

(Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Brontë)

In this prose example from Charlotte Brontë we hear from the narrator, who is focused on the character of Catherine and her fate. The prose style mimics his obsession in its long, winding sentences.

Example #3

“I never know you was so brave, Jim,” she went on comfortingly. “You is just like big mans; you wait for him lift his head and then you go for him. Ain’t you feel scared a bit? Now we take that snake home and show everybody. Nobody ain’t seen in this kawn-tree so big snake like you kill.”

(My Antonia by Willa Cather)

In this excerpt from My Antonia, Willa Cather uses her prose to suggest the sound of Antonia’s English. She is a recent immigrant and as the book progresses her English improves, yet never loses the flavor of being a non-native speaker.

Example #4

Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title, but it meant a lot to Cohn. He cared nothing for boxing, in fact he disliked it, but he learned it painfully and thoroughly to counteract the feeling of inferiority and shyness he had felt on being treated as a Jew at Princeton.

(The Sun also Rises by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway wrote his prose in a very direct and straightforward manner. This excerpt from The Sun Also Rises demonstrates the directness in which he wrote–there is no subtlety to the narrator’s remark “Do not think I am very much impressed by that as a boxing title.”

Example #5

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening. Now—
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?
No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too.

(To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)

Virginia Woolf was noted for her stream-of-consciousness prose style. This excerpt from To the Lighthouse demonstrates her style of writing in the same way that thoughts occur to a normal person.

Example #6

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

(“Be Drunk” by Charles Baudelaire)

Unlike the previous examples, this is an example of a prose poem. Note that it is written in a fluid way that uses regular grammar and rhythm, yet has an inarguably poetic sense to it.

Test Your Knowledge of Prose

1. Choose the best prose definition from the following statements:
A. A form of communicating that uses ordinary grammar and flow.
B. A piece of literature with a rhythmic structure.
C. A synonym for verse.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Why is the following quote from William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” not an example of prose?

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove

A. It has a rhythmic structure.
B. It contains rhymes.
C. It does not use ordinary grammar.
D. All of the above.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following excerpts from works by Margaret Atwood is a prose example?

You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
you need to sleep.

“A Sad Child”

I would like to believe this is a story I’m telling. I need to believe it. I must believe it. Those who can believe that such stories are only stories have a better chance. If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending. Then there will be an ending, to the story, and real life will come after it. I can pick up where I left off.

The Handmaid’s Tale

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

“The Moment”

Answer to Question #3 Show


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