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PROSE

PROSE [From Latin prosus direct or straightforward. Prosa oratio was the Latin equivalent of Greek pezós lógos speech that goes on foot, as opposed to émmetros lógos (‘measured speech’) or verse, whose high prestige was reflected in the image of riding on horseback.] A form of written DISCOURSE based on the sentence and without the stylized patterning of VERSE. A negative perception of prose, which has persisted from classical times virtually to the present day, sees it as a medium that lacks strong features and creative vigour: whence the use of prosaic to mean ‘dull, commonplace, unimaginative’. This ancient perception has, however, diminished greatly in the 20c, in the course of which prose has become the dominant form of printed discourse and verse has become largely peripheral.

The term covers two kinds of procedure: employing physical features such as the non-metrical line, the PARAGRAPH, and SENTENCE-based PUNCTUATION, and styles of discourse that serve narrative, expository, descriptive, persuasive, dramatic, and other ends. Prose writing is so similar in many ways to carefully organized SPEECH, and the two have been linked for so long in the world of education, that prose is often thought of as simply speech transferred to paper. Everyday speech, however, is much less tightly structured than most types of prose, and its dynamics are quite distinct from those of formal writing. Colloquial English, for example, is not arranged according to the classical theory of the wellformed sentence (‘a sentence is a complete thought’), long a key criterion for producing and evaluating prose. Such a criterion has been used by elocutionists and others in attempts to ‘improve’ speech, but without great success: spoken usage that is too ‘prosy’ sounds artificial and perhaps pretentious. In the classical world, the study and use of prose were linked with RHETORIC, GRAMMAR, and LOGIC, but whereas the rhetorical tradition was oral in origin, the beginnings of grammar and logic lay in the use and study of writing. Lacking the mnemonic quality and often the histrionic roles of verse, prose has depended largely on writing (not oral delivery) for its transmission, and has come only within the last 300 years to serve as a regular vehicle for ‘high’ literary genres such as drama and the epic (the latter essentially in the form of the novel).

Kinds of prose

Because of its wide present-day use, prose ranges across many activities, including: the writing of technical instructions; the presentation of information in newspapers and other periodicals; legal, business, and other reports; personal letters; and the writing of fiction and drama. Literary prose, considered by many to be its highest form, shares with verse (despite the classical view) an intensification and stylization of rhythm and a greater than usual attention to rhetorical features and aesthetic factors such as euphony and assonance. Its status as prose is sustained, however, by the absence of recurring metrical patterns, however ‘poetic’ in form and content such texts may be. Many writers of literary prose have followed Aristotle's dictum that it ‘must neither possess metre nor be without rhythm’ (Rhetoric, 3. 8), and at times it can have a quality close to free verse or blank verse. Just as the line of demarcation is not always easy to find between prose and verse, so there is no easy demarcation between one kind of prose and another. Prose discourses occupy a spectrum in which the extremes are easily identified: ‘poetic’ prose on one side, ‘technical’ or ‘functional’ prose on the other, with the middle ground often uncertain.

Prose and style

Although STYLE is sometimes thought to reside only in ‘good’ literary writing (however judged), it is a factor in all writing; every specimen of prose from instructions on how to put together a piece of furniture to James Joyce's Ulysses has features that can be described, analysed, and evaluated by stylistic and aesthetic criteria. The evolution of Western prose has produced a variety of styles, often characteristic of a particular period, writer, or function. The traditional division of styles has been into high, middle, and low, according to the rhetorical principle of decorum (that the manner of writing should be adapted to subject and recipient). This socially ranked system, however, has not proved useful in contemporary analysis because it lacks objectivity (though it partly incorporates the present-day linguistic category of REGISTER). Like other Western European VERNACULARS, English developed in the shadow of LATIN, and its models for prose were therefore Latinate, at first through translation, imitation, and experiment, later as a consequence of its hybrid inheritance. Because of the classical legacy (and despite specific differences), the prose styles of English have much in common with those of FRENCH, ITALIAN, SPANISH, GERMAN, and other languages also influenced by Latin models. It is possible therefore to talk of a broad European prose tradition of which English is part.

Old and Middle English prose

OLD ENGLISH prose writing was largely a matter of translation from Latin, as in the works of ALFRED the Great (9c), but original vernacular prose was produced by such writers as AELFRIC (10–11c) and the clerics who compiled the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE. By and large, the style is straightforward and unadorned. In the centuries immediately after the Norman Conquest (1066), the development of MIDDLE ENGLISH prose waited on the decline of French as the language of aristocracy and government and of Latin as the dominant language of religion and learning. There was therefore little demand for vernacular prose in the Middle Ages and as a result it was generally poorly structured in comparison with Latin. However, the vernacular sermon added persuasive rhetorical strength to some English prose texts, notably in the writings of John WYCLIFFE, Geoffrey CHAUCER, and William CAXTON.

The following excerpts are typically from translations, or associated with them: the Old English version of the Venerable Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, early 8c); Chaucer's rendering in the 14c of Boethius, De Consolatione Philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy: 6c); and Caxton's prologue to the Eneydos, his version of a French version of Virgil's Aeneid (1490), which moved towards EARLY MODERN ENGLISH. The slashes (virgules) in Caxton's text were an experiment in punctuation, and are roughly equivalent to commas.
Old English. Breten is gārsecges īegland, þæt wæs gēo geāra Albion hāten: is gesett betwix norþdǣle and westdǣle, Germānie and Gallie and Hispānie, þæm mǣstum dǣlum Eurōpe, micle fæce ongeān. þæt is norþ eahta hund mīla lang, and twā hund mīla brād. Hit hæfþ fram sūþdǣleþā mǣgþe ongeān þe man hætt Gallia Belgica. Hit is welig, þis īegland, on wæstmum and on trēowum missenlicra cynna, and hit is gescrēpe on lǣswe scēapa and nēata, and on sumum stōwum wīngeardas grōaþ.

[A close translation: Britain is a sea island, that was in former years called Albion: it is set between the north-parts and west-parts [that is, to the north and west] of Germany, Gaul, and Spain, the greatest parts of Europe, by much space opposite [that is, at a considerable distance]. It is north eight hundred miles long, and two hundred miles broad. It has on south-part the nation opposite that one calls Belgian Gaul. It is rich, this island, in fruit and trees of various kinds, and it is suitable for pastures of sheep and cattle, and in some places vineyards grow.]

Chaucer. The poete of Trace, Orpheus, that whylom hadde right great sorwe for the deeth of his wyf, after that he hadde maked, by his weeply songes, the wodes, moevable, to rennen; and hadde maked the riveres to stonden stille; and hadde maked the hertes and the hindes to joignen, dredeles, hir sydes to cruel lyouns, for to herknen his songe; and hadde maked that the hare was nat agast of the hounde, which that was plesed by his songe: so, whan the moste ardaunt love of his wif brende the entrailes of his brest, ne the songes that hadden overcomen alle thinges ne mighten nat asswagen hir lord Orpheus, he pleynede him of the hevene goddes that weren cruel to him; he wente him to the houses of helle. And there he temprede hise blaundisshinge songes by resowninge strenges, and spak and song in wepinge al that ever he hadde received and laved out of the noble welles of his moder Calliope the goddesse; and he song with as mochel as he mighte of wepinge, and with as moche as love, that doublede his sorwe, mighte yeve him and techen him; and he commoevede the helle, and requerede and bisoughte by swete preyere the lordes of sowles in helle, of relesinge; that is to seyn, to yilden him his wyf.
Caxton. How wel that many honderd yerys passed was the sayd booke of eneydos wyth other werkes made and lerned dayly in scolis specyally in ytalye & other places / whiche historye the sayd vyrgyle made in metre / And whan I had aduised me in this sayd boke. I delybered and concluded to translate it in to englysshe And forthwyth toke a penne & ynke and wrote a leef or tweyne / whyche I ouersawe agayn to correct it / And whan I sawe the fayr & straunge termes therin / I doubted that it sholde not please some gentylmen whiche late blamed me sayeng yt in my translacyons I had ouer curyous termes whiche coude not be vnderstande of comyn peple / and desired me to vse olde and homely termes in my translacyons, and fayn wolde I satysfye euery man / and so to doo toke an olde boke and redde therin / and certaynly the englysshe was so rude and brood that I coude not wele vnderstande it. And also my lorde abbot of westmynster ded do shewe to me late certayn euydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now vsid / And certaynly it was wreton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe I coude not reduce ne brynge it to be vnderstonden /

Elizabethan and Jacobean prose

In the 16c and 17c, more and more writers chose to develop English prose rather than continue with Latin. Although their prose still followed Latin models, it necessarily accommodated itself increasingly to such vernacular usages as the compound noun and the phrasal verb, as well as less formal syntactic constructions. Elizabethan prose often seems self-conscious in attempting to imitate Latin, with the Roman lawyer and orator Cicero as the supreme model. Style was based on the periodic sentence, formal and ordered in structure, building to its climax before the full meaning is revealed. This apparent neo-classical artificiality tightened up the loose, rambling style of Middle English and took on a powerfully disciplined form in the preface to the Authorized Version of the BIBLE:
But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot vnderstand? How shall they vnderstand that which is kept close in an vnknowen tongue? as it is written, Except I know the power of the voyce, I shall be to him that speaketh, a Barbarian and he that speaketh, shalbe [sic] a Barbarian to me. The Apostle excepteth no tongue; not Hebrewe the ancientest, not Greeke the most copious, not Latine the finest. Nature taught a naturall man to confesse, that all of vs in those tongues which wee doe not vnderstand, are plainely deafe; wee may turne the deafe eare vnto them …. Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy place; that remooueth the couer of the well, that wee may come by the water, euen as Iacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which meanes the flockes of Laban were watered. Indeede without translation into the vulgar tongue, the vnlearned are but like children at Iacobs well (which was deepe) without a bucket or something to draw with: or as that person mentioned by Esay, to whom when a sealed booke was deliuered, with this motion, Read this, I pray thee, hee was faine to make this answere, I cannot, for it is sealed.

A highly artificial but influential style was that of John LYLY, named euphuism from the hero of his prose romances. It was characterized by long periodic sentences, with abundant tropes and figures of RHETORIC, classical ALLUSIONS, and improbable analogies from the natural world. SHAKESPEARE parodied it in Love's Labour's Lost (c.1595) and elsewhere. A more restrained style, formal but somewhat less mannered, was achieved by Sir Philip Sidney in his Arcadia (1581) and Defence of Poetry (1579–80). The excitement of English as an emerging literary language in its own right brought exuberance to contemporary writing. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) criticized the tendency of the periodic style to mask sense with rhetoric. His own style was sometimes rhetorical, but produced greater simplicity, combined with balance and antithesis, in his Essays (1597–1625).

Restoration and Enlightenment prose

The Restoration period saw the emergence of a distinctly native prose style, whose seeds were sown in the polemical writings of the Civil War. The new prose was simpler and less ornate, further from Latin syntax, more familiar in tone, though still polished and urbane. The beginnings of JOURNALISM strengthened the closer relationship between writer and reader; the political prose of Hobbes and the critical prose of Dryden are typical. Prose was increasingly used for instruction as well as for persuasion and entertainment. The members of the ROYAL SOCIETY (founded in 1662) were expected to prefer ‘the language of artizans, countrymen, and merchants, before that of wits and scholars’. The polite, familiar style was further developed in the early 18c by Addison, Defoe, Steele, and Swift. The following is from Daniel DEFOE'S An Essay upon Projects (1697), relating to the establishing of an English equivalent of the Académie française (see ACADEMY):
I had the Honour once to be a Member of a small Society, who seem'd to offer at this Noble Design in England. But the Greatness of the Work, and the Modesty of the Gentlemen concern'd, prevail'd with them to desist an Enterprize which appear'd too great for Private Hands to undertake. We want indeed a Richlieu to commence such a Work: For I am persuaded, were there such a Genius in our Kingdom to lead the way, there wou'd not want Capacities who cou'd carry on the Work to a Glory equal to all that has gone before them. The English Tongue is a Subject not at all less worthy the Labour of such a Society than the French, and capable of a much greater Perfection. The Learned among the French will own, That the Comprehensiveness of Expression is a Glory in which the English Tongue not only Equals but Excels its Neighbours.

With the rise of the essay and the novel in the 18c, prose took the assured and accepted place in literature that it already held in legal, commercial, and other uses. Critical responses, both casual and professional, which had previously been mainly confined to poetry, came to be applied to literary prose as well. In addition, a good prose style was considered a desirable accomplishment for the cultivated, and attention to models of ‘good writing’ in essays, letters, etc., became more and more a required part of education. However, in the late 18c there was a return to the periodic Latinate style. JOHNSON wrote with involved syntax and the frequent use of classical words, and Burke (1729–97) in political prose and Gibbon (1737–94) in historical prose followed a similar style. At the same time, a comparable prose was developing in North America, and is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 (signed by John Hancock on behalf of Congress), which opens with the following statement:
When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation. We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That, to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government (A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled, 4 July 1776).

Prose in the nineteenth century

This century brought as much variety and abundance in prose style as in other things. The reading public expanded on an unprecedented scale, the popularity of the novel in particular giving impetus to prose writing for entertainment and the growth of JOURNALISM making it a major vehicle of news and opinion. Although there are marked differences between the leading novelists of the period, they shared a desire to write accessibly and to keep the interest of the reader, who is addressed directly, as a friend. Narrative style became more assured in the hands of Austen. DICKENS, Thackeray, Eliot, Hardy, and many other both ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ writers. A more didactic type of prose, designed to inform and convince, was practised by Arnold, Carlyle, Macaulay, and others. The following is from Macaulay's essay on Bacon, in the Edinburgh Review (1837):
We have often heard men who wish, as almost all men of sense wish, that women should be highly educated, speak with rapture of the English ladies of the sixteenth century, and lament that they can find no modern damsel resembling those fair pupils of Ascham and Aylmer who compared, over their embroidery, the styles of Isocrates and Lysias, and who, while the horns were sounding and the dogs in full cry, sat in the lonely oriel, with eyes riveted to that immortal page which tells how meekly and bravely the first great martyr of intellectual liberty took the cup from his weeping gaoler. But surely these complaints have very little foundation. We would by no means disparage the ladies of the sixteenth century or their pursuits. But we conceive that those who extol them at the expense of the women of our time forget one very obvious and very important circumstance. In the time of Henry the Eighth and Edward the Sixth, a person who did not read Greek and Latin could read nothing, or next to nothing. The Italian was the only modern language which possessed anything that could be called a literature. All the valuable books then extant in all the vernacular dialects of Europe would hardly have filled a single shelf. Prose writing in English took firm root during this century in many parts of the world, particularly in the US but also in Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand.

Prose in the twentieth century

More prose-writing in English has probably been published in this century than in all past centuries combined. Because, however, the quantities involved are so vast and the objectives and styles have been so varied, it is virtually impossible to make more than a few provisional general statements about 20c prose. It can, for example, be argued that there has been in literary and journalistic writing a move away from (often in tandem with a distaste for) the elevated literary and classical style, towards the more direct, immediate, and colloquial. By and large, although every kind of prose can be found in English in the late 20c, there is a general tendency towards factual and referential writing, favouring shorter sentences and a vocabulary as simple as the subject allows. See CHURCHILL, COMPOSITION, CONVERSATION, DIALOGUE, LITERATURE, ORWELL, PERIODIC SENTENCE, STYLE, TEXT, WRITING.

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prose

prose [Lat. prosa oratio=straightforward, or direct, speech], meaningful and grammatical written or spoken language that does not utilize the metrical structure, word transposition, or rhyme characteristic of poetry or verse; it is, however, raised above the level of lifeless composition or commonplace conversation by the use of balance, rhythm, repetition, and antithesis. In literature, prose is the usual mode of expression in such forms as the novel, short story, essay, letter (epistle), history, biography, sermon, and oration. The earliest European prose extant is that of Herodotus (5th cent. BC).

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prose

prose / prōz/ • n. 1. written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure: a short story in prose| [as adj.] a prose passage. ∎ fig. plain or dull writing, discourse, or expression: medical and scientific prose. 2. another term for sequence (sense 4). • v. 1. [intr.] talk tediously: prosing on about female beauty. 2. [tr.] dated compose or convert into prose. DERIVATIVES: pros·er n.

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prose

prose form of language not restricted in measure or rhythm XIV; (eccl.) sequence XV; matter-of-fact expression XVI; prosy discourse XVII. — (O)F. — L. prōsa, sb. use of fem. of prōsus, for earlier prorsus straightforward, direct, contr. of prōversus, pp. of prōvertere turn forwards, f. PRO-1 + vertere turn.
So prosaic XVI. — F. or late L. prōsaicus. Hence prosy XIX.

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prose

prose In literature, a relatively unstructured form of language. Unlike the metrical discipline of poetry, prose is more closely connected with the rhythms of everyday speech.

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prose

proseappose, arose, Bose, brose, chose, close, compose, diagnose, doze, enclose, expose, foreclose, froze, hose, impose, interpose, juxtapose, Montrose, noes, nose, oppose, plainclothes, pose, propose, prose, rose, suppose, those, transpose, underexpose, uprose •Berlioz • flambeaux • thrombose •bandeaux • bulldoze • fricandeaux •metamorphose • pantyhose • glucose •gallows, Hallowes •tableaux • parclose • Fellows •bedclothes • nightclothes • rouleaux •underclothes • misdiagnose •Ambrose • dextrose • Faeroes •primrose • cornrows • sucrose •Burroughs • tuberose •bateaux, gateaux, plateaux •portmanteaux • fructose

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