There are a lot of misconceptions about the difference between prose and verse. You might hear prose referred to as standard or even boring text (perhaps because of the term “prosaic”), whereas verse is often called flowery.
But those are very surface level answers, so what’s the actual difference between prose and verse? These two ways of speaking and writing have fundamental differences in when they are used and how they can be used.
What is prose?
Prose is how we refer to our everyday speech, writing, and even the way we think. It follows typical grammatical structures
Where is prose often used?
Most forms of writing use prose, so you’ll be used to seeing it every day. It’s typically found in literary forms such as short stories, novellas, and novels, as well as nearly every other form of writing you encounter day to day, such as website content, social media posts, and text messages.
The history of prose
While prose is now used everyday and novels are one of the most common literary forms many people read, the history of prose fiction is much more recent than verse. The form of the novel only popularised during the 18th century, when the printing press gave rise to more opportunities for written works of fiction.
What is verse?
Verse, on the other hand, is metrical writing. This means that, unlike ordinary speech or most uses of writing you see every day, verse has a rhythmic structure.
Where is verse often used?
Verse is one of the most common features of poetry, though it is not exclusive to poetry. Playwrights often employ verse too. Though this isn’t seen so often in contemporary plays, it was the standard form for hundreds of years, with the majority of Shakespeare’s plays being written in verse.
The history of verse
Compared to prose, verse and poetry date back thousands of years, even to prehistoric times with hunting poetry and the reliance on oral history. After all, the oldest surviving work of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is an epic poem.
Other major works of literature such as Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey are also poems, so written in verse rather than prose. For hundreds of years, verse continued to be more popular, extending from poems into plays as well. This is in part a continuation of oral traditions, as verse lends itself more to being performed and remembered by actors and audience members.
Prose vs verse: comparison chart
|Structure||Divided into sentences, paragraphs and sometimes chapters|
Split into lines and stanzas
|Common use in different mediums||Short stories, novellas, novels, and blogs||Poetry (and some plays)|
|Appearance||Blocks of text with the length of each line varying depending on how it’s displayed||Each line a strict length, stanzas not justified like with prose|
|Rhyme||Isn’t important||Is commonly used but not always|
|Most common aim||To create a narrative||To convey an idea or theme in an artistic way|
The mains differences between prose and verse
While our comparison chart provides a handy way to compared the differences between prose and verse, here are the main distinctions to be aware of:
Poetry uses meter
Although there is a form of verse called free verse, where there is no set rhythm, the majority of poetry, and by extension verse, is metrical. This means it follows a meter, or a definite rhythm.
What is meter?
Meter is the pattern of beats in a line of verse. These beats are arranged by stressed and unstressed syllables, which gives the reader of a verse a rhyme to follow.
To get more technical, these are some examples of meter: an iamb and trochee contain two beats while dactyl and anapaest contain three. One of the most common metrical structures in English poetry, being a favourite of Shakespeare’s, is iambic pentameter. As the name suggests, this is where each line has five (pent) pairs of beats (iambs).
Prose and verse have different appearances
Because prose isn’t bound by a set rhythm, the structure of each line can vary significantly. This means that when you look at examples of prose, such as in novels, the text can be formatted in different ways but still read the same. This is why ebooks can alter the size of the font and differ the number of words per line without altering the meaning of a book.
With verse, however, each line can be seen as its own element. The length of the line doesn’t vary, because reaching the end of a line provides a natural point for the reader to pause. Poems therefore rarely have formatting changes.
Prose and verse can achieve different purposes
While it’s important to understand the technical differences between prose and verse, as two different styles they can also be used for different intentions. This goes beyond just creating different forms like novels or poems.
Prose provides a more practical approach to conveying meaning. Because it better reflects our everyday way of speaking and thinking, it appears more natural to a reader. Therefore it can be seen to create a work of fiction with a greater emphasis on realism.
Verse, however, can offer a more aesthetic method of creating meaning with words. It is more like painting a picture using language as the different colours, so a poem can be seen to be like a portrait.
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Prose vs poetry FAQs
Is all poetry verse?
While most poetry uses verse, rather than prose, it’s important to know that this isn’t always the case. There is something called prose poetry.
Prose poetry combines verse and prose. It will have more emphasis on rhythm than most examples of prose, but it is nevertheless presented as prose rather than verse. Therefore not all poetry is verse.
Can prose be metrical?
Just because meter is more characteristic of poetry than prose, that doesn’t mean that prose can’t be metrical. Any form of prose can incorporate a rhythm. Though this isn’t so common in everyday speech and writing, some authors use rhythm in prose to direct the pace at which information is presented to a reader.