Guide to Literary Terms

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What are the general forms of prose and its types? What are the the styles of prose (e.g., common style and cheap style)? What is the distinction between fictional and non-fictional prose?

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Prose is defined as anything which is not written in verse. Thus, the first step in defining prose is to define what is meant by the term "verse" or "poetry."

Verse is defined by having meter or an organizational pattern beyond the syntax of the language it is written in. In many languages, this patterning involves a regular use of sound, such as alternation of long and short or stressed and unstressed syllables, or repetition of similar sounds (e.g., rhyme or alliteration). In other traditions, such as in the Hebrew poetry of the Bible, poetry may be structured around syntactic repetitions and parallelisms.

Ordinary language is prose. M. Jourdain, the foolish comic protagonist of Moliere's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, when taking lessons on how to speak like a gentleman, famously stated,

"For more than forty years I have been speaking prose while knowing nothing of it."

Written prose which tells stories about imaginary characters is referred to as fiction, and that which does not tell stories about imaginary characters is nonfiction.

Classical theorists (particularly Demetrius in his treatise On Style) divided prose into three styles:

Grand style

This denotes elevated language used on serious formal occasions, such as eulogies. It often includes numerous figures of speech and elaborate clausal structures.

Middle style

This is the graceful style of "gentleman speaking to gentleman" that uses a moderate amount of figuration. It is the language of most essays and academic work.

Plain style

Favored for letters and technical manuals, this is a style that uses simple language and syntax, avoids figures of speech, and prioritizes clarity above all else.

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There are several different types of prose—which, in general, is any non-poetic writing. The main categories of prose are nonfiction prose, fictional prose, heroic or legendary prose, and poetic prose. Nonfiction and fiction are straightforward enough—they are the generic categories of fiction or nonfiction work, written in a non-poetic manner. Heroic prose typically consists of folklore or legends that tell the tales of heroes, real or mythical (e.g., Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone, Odysseus, Beowulf). Poetic prose is prose that is written to evoke the feelings and imagery of poetry but is not written in verse.

Common style is a standard version...

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