What is prose?

Prose is written or spoken language in its ordinary form. It doesn’t have any metrical structure – unlike poetry, which is often written in lines of a certain number of syllables, or with a certain pattern of stress on the syllables. Most of the text you see every day is prose.

Some written works – often poetry or plays – are written in a certain metre. ‘Metre’ in this sense does not refer to a unit of distance – it refers to a rhythmic structure based on things like the number of syllables in a line of text, and where the stress on those syllables is. The most famous kind of metre is iambic pentametre – which Shakespeare often used. Iambic pentametre has five pairs of syllables in each line (penta- is the Greek numeral prefix meaning ‘five’), with the stress being on the second syllable of each pair. Below are six lines from Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing, spoken by Don Pedro in Act I, Scene I, which are written in iambic pentametre.

Thou wilt be like a lover presently
And tire the hearer with a book of words.
If thou dost love fair Hero, cherish it,
And I will break with her and with her father,
And thou shalt have her. Was’t not to this end
That thou began’st to twist so fine a story?

Prose is written or spoken language that doesn’t have a metre. It’s the style of language that you see most of the time – newspaper articles, scientific papers, non-fiction books, and most fiction books are written in prose. Below is a paragraph from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is prose.

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Note that while prose doesn’t have a metre, it may still be rhythmic – it’s just that this isn’t a strict rhythmic structure.

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