The Difference between Poetry and Prose


Poetry is language spoken or written according to some pattern of recurrence that emphasises relationships between words on the basis of sound as well as meaning. This pattern is almost always a rhythm or metre (regular pattern of sound units). This pattern may be supplemented by ornamentation such as rhyme or alliteration or both. The demands of verbal patterning usually make poetry a more condensed medium than prose or everyday speech. Since the end of the Middle Ages, written forms of poetry have generally been often formatted on the page to show visually that the language is in verse (that is, has a rhythm or metre). The normal method is to divide poetry into lines: when the metrical pattern repeats or shifts the change is represented by a line break. For instance, consider the following limerick:

An epicure dining at Crewe
Found a very large bug in his stew.
Said the waiter, “Don't shout
And wave it about,
Or the rest will be wanting one too.”

A limerick has five lines in which the first two and the last rhyme and have three feet (in English poetry, a “foot” is a metrical structure consisting of at least on stressed syllable). The other two lines have two feet and a different rhyme. The line breaks indicate visually the shifts in the metrical pattern.


Before the late Middle Ages, poetry was regularly written down without line breaks. Presumably, people detected the metrical shifts through non-visual means. Modern editions of these poems generally introduce line breaks for the aid of the modern reader.


In writing about poetry, it is essential to indicate these line breaks when quoting a poem. The standard way is to indent the text. However, for short quotes under five lines it is conventional to integrate the quote into your writing and indicate the line breaks with a slash. For example, in the above limerick “an epicure dining at Crewe / Found a very large bug in his stew.” It is absolutely essential to indicate the line breaks in the correct format for the length of the quotation.


There are special conventions for where to put citations of line numbers. Also, you may have to change the capitalisation and punctuation to fit the grammar of your sentence. For these conventions, see the section on integrating quotations.



Prose is the form of written language that is not organised according to formal patterns of verse. It may have some sort of rhythm and some devices of repetition and balance, but these are not governed by regularly sustained formal arrangement. The significant unit is the sentence, not the line. Hence it is represented without line breaks in writing.


It is normal to quote prose texts by indenting the quotation if it will run more than four lines on the page (this refers to from the left to the right margin, not to poetic lines). If the quotation is shorter, it may be integrated into the main text.

[Return to Quotations | Return to Table of Contents]

Last Update: 20 March, 2003