Guide to Literary Terms

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What is the definition of prose? What are the elements and characteristics of prose?

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Prose is defined as any writing that is not broken up into poetic lines or written in a metrical structure. In other words, prose refers to all writing that is not poetry. Prose typically sounds like natural speech, though it can also be very formal, and most books are written in prose. Since it is such a broad term, there are many different kinds of prose, including fictional, nonfictional, dramatic, and heroic, to name a few.

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Most forms of conventional writing are prose. Prose consists of grammatical sentences, organized in paragraph form. It features a natural flow of speech and no patterns of rhythm or rhyme. It is not written in verse, which is what you find in poetry. Verse takes many forms, but it sometimes looks like these initial lines of Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening":

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

The definition of prose is pretty wide, and it therefore takes many different forms. Here are some types of works that you likely encounter frequently and could classify as prose:

Novels and short stories: Most typical required reading in your English courses, from The Story of an Hour to Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice, are prose. These works of fiction vary greatly in voice, vocabulary, and form, but they all all ultimately follow typical speech patterns and sentence formations. Whether you read science fiction, metafiction, romances, or historical novels, you are enjoying a work of prose.

Textbooks and biographical publications: You likely use a historical textbook for your history class and may pick up a book on Guion Stewart Bluford, Jr. for a research project in your astronomy class. Both of these publications are written using typical grammatical forms and structures, with recognizable paragraphs on the pages. This is prose.

Scientific writing: Scientific writing may explain how the world around us works, investigate theories, and provide the outcomes of scientific experimentations. These works are written in prose using typical grammatical structures.

Business writing: Companies need to effectively communicate their processes and work flow both within the company and to their prospective clients. They utilize prose writing for effective communication, often employing forms such as emails, memos, agendas, and letters to convey needed information.

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The term prose is used simply as a contrast to verse. It is what linguists call the "unmarked" form of language. In other words, the ordinary language we speak and write, such as your question and all the answers on this page, are examples of prose. Basically, you have been speaking in prose all your life. 

If you are being asked about types of prose within the context of a literature class, the typology is likely to be restricted to the types of prose studied in the literature classroom, as opposed to all non-verse language (something that linguists might study.)

Literary critics divide prose into fictional, dramatic, and non-fictional, with fiction including both exposition and dialogue, prose drama consisting exclusively of dialogue, and non-fiction being distinguished by recounting real as opposed to imaginary events. 

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Prose connotes spoken or written discourse that is not patterned into metric or free verse. To put it simply, prose is writing or speech that is not poetry.

Prose exists on a variety of different levels. For instance, at one end of the spectrum is ordinary, colloquial speech. In contrast, at the other end is distinguished written discourse, or what John Dryden called “that other harmony of prose.”

There are a variety of different types of prose. These include:

  1. Nonfictional Prose: A piece of writing based on fact. Examples include autobiographies, biographies, and non-fiction essays.
  2. Fictional Prose: Imaginative writing. Examples include novels, parables, short stories, and most drama.
  3. Heroic Prose: Writing based on the formulaic expressions found in oral tradition. Examples include legends and fables.

Additionally, prose can be narrative, expository, descriptive or persuasive. Narrative writing has a storyline and characters. It is often told chronologically. Expository writing denotes writing to explain. This form of writing explores particular topics and themes. Expository writing differs from narrative writing because it does not necessarily tell a story. Descriptive writing uses detail, such as the five senses, to discuss a topic in depth. This form of writing is often used in conjunction with narrative, expository, or persuasive writing. Persuasive writing attempts to convince the audience of the merits or disadvantages of the topic.

The term “prose” originates from the Latin prosa, meaning "in phrase" which was derived from prosa oratio, meaning "straight, direct, unadorned speech." This phrase was derived from prorsus, meaning "straightforward or direct" and can be further traced to pro versusm, meaning "turned forward."

It is also known that artfully written prose seems to have developed later than written verse (poetry). Inherent in prose is a sense of style, or how speakers and writers communicate their meanings. Prose style is specific to a particular work, author, or genre.

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Prose refers simply to any written piece of work that is built on sentences (and paragraphs) rather than lines or verses (like poetry).

Examples/kinds of prose include novels, short stories, essays, letters, editorials, articles, and journals.

Characteristics of prose can be broken into four categories, divided by purpose:

  1. Narrative: writing which tells a story (can be fiction or non-fiction); usually told in chronological order; has characters; follows the basic plot-line - exposition, rising action, climax, falling action.
  2. Expository: gives basic information; used often in speeches and essays; does not tell a story or argue.
  3. Descriptive: describes something in detail, again without telling a story or arguing a point; used most often in combination with another mode of writing, but alone is often found in scientific or medical reports.
  4. Persuasive: argues a point (or two sides of a question); gives evidence in favor or against.

To explain prose as simply as possible, it covers anything written that is NOT poetry - basically.

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