Purple prose

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In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so ornate or flowery as to disrupt a narrative flow by drawing undesirable attention to an extravagant style of writing as it diminishes appreciation of the discourse or story 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]

Inceptis grauibus plerumque et magna professis
purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter
adsuitur pannus, cum lucus et ara Dianae
et properantis aquae per amoenos ambitus agros
aut flumen Rhenum aut pluuius describitur arcus;
sed nunc non erat his locus. Et fortasse cupressum
scis simulare; quid hoc, si fractis enatat exspes
nauibus, aere dato qui pingitur?

Weighty openings and grand declarations often
Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam
Far and wide, when Diana's grove and her altar,
The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,
Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow’s being described.
There’s no place for them here. Perhaps you know how
To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given
Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck
In despair?[6][7]

See also[edit]


  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.