Purple prose

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In literary criticism, purple prose is overly ornate prose text that may disrupt a narrative flow by drawing undesirable attention to its own extravagant style of writing, thereby diminishing the appreciation of the prose overall.[1] Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.

Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions. As there is no precise rule or absolute definition of what constitutes purple prose, deciding if a text, passage, or complete work has fallen victim is a somewhat subjective decision. According to Paul West, "It takes a certain amount of sass to speak up for prose that's rich, succulent and full of novelty. Purple is immoral, undemocratic and insincere; at best artsy, at worst the exterminating angel of depravity."[2]


The term purple prose is derived from a reference by the Roman poet Horace[3][4] (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65–8 BC) who wrote in his Ars Poetica (lines 14–21):[5]

See also[edit]

  • Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, to find "the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels"
  • Concision, a communication principle of eliminating redundancy
  • Description, one of four rhetorical modes, along with exposition, argumentation, and narration
  • Elegant variation, unnecessary use of synonyms
  • Euphuism, deliberate excess of literary devices fashionable in 1580s English prose
  • Order of the Occult Hand, a group of journalists who sneak the phrase "It was as if an occult hand had…" into published copy
  • Verbosity, in which a speech or writing uses more words than is necessary


  1. ^ "A Word a Day – purple prose". Wordsmith.org. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
  2. ^ West, Paul (15 December 1985). "In Defense of Purple Prose". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
  3. ^ Nixon, Cheryl (2008). Novel Definitions. Broadview Press. pp. 194–. ISBN 978-1770482074. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  4. ^ Macrone, Michael (1994). It's Greek to Me. HarperCollins. pp. 147–. ISBN 978-0062720443. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  5. ^ Horace (18 BC). Ars Poetica. Lines 14–21.
  6. ^ Kline, A. S. (2005). "Horatti Flacci Ars Poetica – epistulae 3". Retrieved June 17, 2019.
  7. ^ Alternative translation:

    Your opening shows great promise, and yet flashy
    purple patches; as when describing
    a sacred grove, or the altar of Diana,
    or a stream meandering through fields,
    or the river Rhine, or a rainbow;
    but this was not the place for them. If you can realistically render
    a cypress tree, would you include one when commissioned to paint
    a sailor in the midst of a shipwreck?[original research?]


  • Coles Editorial Board, Dictionary of Literary Terms, Rama Brothers, 2001.