We sometimes use the word "accent" to mean roughly the same thing as "stress." "Stress" -- a more exact word -- is what you hear when you hear the difference between "Will the jury convict him?" and "Is he a convict?"

Though stress is an element of all English speech and almost all English meters, it's not simple (like syllable juncture). It's compounded of pitch, volume, sometimes duration and timbre. (If you look at the computerized waveform of a word, it's very difficult to see where the accent is. Accent is a perceptual fact, more than a sensory one.)

Two words alliterate if their initial sounds are the same: "car" and "key." Obviously the sounds don't have to be spelled the same way.

Anglo-Saxon prosody was partly founded on patterns of alliteration. In that tradition, any two words beginning with a vowel are also thought of as alliterating.

Alliteration is actually a special case of consonance, which is further connected to assonance. See both of those entries in the Glossary.

AM' - fi - brak
adjective: am - fi - BRAK' - ik

An amphibrach is a foot consisting of a slack, a stress, and another slack:

x / x
a - MAZ - ing

Important Rule: In iambic verse, the amphibrach occurs only and always at the end of a line whose last syllable is a slack (and whose second-to-last is stressed). In rhymed verse, amphibrachs come in pairs: "Till later, / Decatur." (See Reference, "Substitution Rules.") See also scazon and third paeon.

am - FIM' - a - ser
(no adjectival form)

An amphimacer, also called a cretic, is a foot consisting of a stress, a slack, and another stress:

/ x /

Warning: in scanning iambic verse, the amphimacer is almost never necessary. If you find yourself using one, it's probably a mistake. In anapestic verse, on the other hand, it's a common substitution. (See Advanced Topics, "Anapestic Verse.")

AN' - a - pest
adjective: AN - a - PEST - ik

An anapest is a foot consisting of two slacks followed by a stress:

x x /
un - a - BASHED

In iambic verse, the permissibility of anapestic substitution varies from one historical period to another. (See Advanced Topics, "History: Trisyllabic Substitution.") Anapestic verse is the second most common kind in English -- though a distant second -- after iambic. (See Advanced Topics, "Anapestic Verse.")

Assonance is a pattern of sound that depends on repetition of vowel sounds. "Grace" and "pale," though they don't rhyme, exhibit assonance. So do "pyre" and "pile," though slightly less so.

How different do two vowel sounds have to be before we fail to hear any similarity? How does this depend on context? Because there is a more or less continuous spectrum of vowel sounds, it's possible for poets to arrange not just patterns of identical vowels, but progressions or ranges among vowel sounds. John Keats was especially good at this. Kenneth Burke wrote an excellent essay on the subject called "Musicality in English Verse."

See also consonance.

BOCK' - ee - us
adjective: BOCK' - ik

A bacchius is a foot consisting of a slack followed by two stresses:

x / /

Warning: in iambic verse the bacchius never occurs. (Never? A good rule-of-thumb. But it could be one way to mark an anapest with an unusually strong second syllable.) In anapestic verse, however, it's a common substitution.

Consonance is a pattern of sound that depends on a repetition of consonants. "Ticket" and "rack" are heard (or will be when the context directs our attention in the right way) as linked by consonance. When the sounds that make the consonance fall at the beginnings of words, we call it "alliteration" (as in "please" and "punch").

See also assonance.

KREE' - tik
(no adjectival form)

A cretic (also called an amphimacer) is a foot consisting of a stress, a slack, and another stress:

/ x /

Warning: in scanning iambic verse, the amphimacer is almost never necessary. If you find yourself using one, it's probably a mistake. In anapestic verse, it's a common substitution.

DACK' - til
adjective: dak - TILL' - ik

A dactyl is a foot consisting of a stress followed by two slacks:

/ x x
CAN - o - py

(The word "dactyl" is Greek for "finger"; think of the longer bone near your palm and the two little ones toward the end.)

Warning: the dactyl is a rare substitution in iambic (or anapestic) verse. It can't occur at the end of a line because of the rule on the second paeon; it's most likely at the beginning of a line, or after a strong caesura.

There is some dactylic verse in English; much of it includes horses -- yet do hoofbeats actually make an anapestic pattern? Oh well. Why, in a language whose two-syllable words are usually trochaic (like "poster"), is the basic meter iambic?

A "defective foot" is a single stress:

^ /

The caret ( ^ ) marks a missing slack syllable. It usually coincides with a strong caesura or the beginning of the line. (A line that begins with a defective foot is called "headless" or "acephalous.") In a trochaic meter, the caret would follow the stress; in an anapestic meter an iamb ( x / ) is in effect a kind of defective foot and could be marked ^x/, or x^/.

There's nothing wrong with a defective foot -- it's probably a bad name. On the other hand, be careful about using them in scansions; do so only when you're forced to. The first giveaway would be only nine syllables in an iambic pentameter lines (or only seven in a tetrameter); such a line must contain a defective.

Enjambment occurs when the sense, or more precisely the syntax, runs over from one line to the next. Enjambment is syntax wrangling with lineation. Lineation can counter syntax more or less violently or weakly:

Here I am.
There you are.
Here I
am. There
you are.
Robert Creeley

(See Reference, counterpoint.) Strong enjambments often alter meaning:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
with misery?
W. B. Yeats
If I stepped out of my body I would break
into blossom.
James Wright
I have had to learn the simplest things
Charles Olson

EYE' - am
adjective: eye - AM' - bik

An iamb is a foot consisting of a slack followed by a stress:

x /
de - SIRE

Iambic verse -- verse in which the iamb is the normal, expected foot -- is by far the most common kind in English. (Yet most two-syllable words in English are trochaic; this is worth thinking about. See Reference, counterpoint.)

Iambic pentameter is the most common meter in English. It may account for three-quarters of all English verse, over the past six centuries or so.

An iambic pentameter is a line of five feet, mostly iambs. Iambic pentameter can also be thought of as a pattern,

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

heard through, or behind, a particular line of verse. See Reference, "Rhythm and Meter," for a more theoretical discussion. Also see "What's metrics?" in the Paths available on the Map.

A juncture is a joint, a place where two things meet. The junctures relevant to prosody divide (or unite) items like syllables, words, or feet. To say that a meter depends on syllable juncture, for instance, is more or less to say that poets and readers who recognize that meter do so by hearing the divisions between syllables and counting them.

Juncture is an interesting linguistic phenomenon. We think of the boundaries between words, for instance, as fundamental. Yet in speech there are none, in sensory terms. (This is one reason why computer speech recognition is so hard, and why someone who has studied a foreign language in classes is baffled at first on the streets of a city where it's spoken.) In the development of writing, the blank space separating words was a fairly late invention. So juncture is perceptual — not a "fact," but something that happens when we listen. Most of prosody depends on this kind of perceptual event, not on "facts" in the usual sense. That's why it's hard (for people who demand "hard facts") and why it's easy (for people who attend to what their ears tell them) — and also why it's important (part of meaning).

lin - ee - AY' - shun

To lineate something is to divide it into lines. Language divided into lines is called verse. (See Reference, verse and prose.)

When we talk about the lineation of a poem, we usually talk not about the bare fact that it is written in verse, but about how it is divided into lines, why the divisions fall exactly where they do, and what effects this has on the tone or voice or meaning of the poem.

In metrical verse this may seem like a simple question, but it's always well worth asking. Metrical poets don't just go on until they've got enough syllables or feet for a line; they think about what that line does as a unit, separate from the sentence that may run on past it. (See enjambment, and Reference, counterpoint.)

In free verse, lineation is often prosodically essential. (See Reference, free verse.)

mo - LOSS' - us
(no adjectival form)

A molossus is a foot containing three stresses:

/ / /

Warning: while the molossus is possible in anapestic verse, it's unlikely even there, and impossible in iambic verse.

pal - im - BOCK' - ee - us

A palimbacchius is a foot consisting of two stresses followed by a slack:

/ / x
BAD WEA - ther

Warning: the palimbacchius is never required in scanning normal iambic verse.

(Never? Well,

/ x | x /|x / | x / | / / x
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ

hardly ever. Philip Larkin's poem, "Church Going," is deliberately anarchic in its meter in some places.)

A polysyllable is a word that has more than one syllable; a word with just one is a monosyllable. "Curtain" is a polysyllabic word; "part" is monosyllabic. Don't be confused by long monosyllables: "scowl" seems a much longer word than "cut," but both have one syllable. Some words are ambiguous in some dialects ("fire" vs. "fy-er"); when in doubt, trust the dictionary.

Prosody is the system of rhythmic organization that governs both the reading and the writing of a poem.

- or -

The prosody of a poem is the poet's method of controlling the reader's temporal experience of a poem, and her or his attention to that experience.

"Organization" implies elements to be organized, and a mode of organization:

Prosodic Elements

The rhythmic elements organized by a prosody are always some selection from among the auditory elements of language:


Any of these could be made the basis for a meter; some are more likely than others in particular languages. See Advanced Topics, "Foreign Meters."

Prosodic Modes

A "rhythmic organization" implies not only elements to be organized, but also some mode of organization. In practice, this means either a numerical mode -- a system of counting -- or a system that depends on more local, contextual kinds of symmetry. We define the first as meters, the others as free verse.

PEER' - ik
adjective also PEER' - ik

A pyrrhic is a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables:

x x
of a

Important Rule: the pyrrhic occurs in iambic verse only before a spondee. The combination is called a "rising Ionic." But note that the spondee can occur anywhere, and need not be preceded by a pyrrhic.

Notice the pyrrhic with following spondee, and the spondee without pyrrhic, in these lines from Yeats's "Leda and the Swan":

x / | x /|x / | x x | / /
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
x / | x / | / / | x / | x /
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

The term "quantity" refers to the lengths of syllables. Greek and Latin were languages in which syllable-length was definite (though somewhat complex): a syllable was long or short according to rules and conventions. If the Greeks and Romans had had dictionaries, their dictionaries would have marked syllabic quantities, in the same way that English dictionaries mark stresses.

In English, while stress is definite (though quite complex), syllable-length is not. Though "strengths" takes much longer to pronounce than "pit," our dictionaries don't mark the difference. Also, syllables have a whole range of lengths, and aren't divided into a binary pair like "long" and "short."

Quantitative verse is verse whose meter depends on patterns of long and short syllables. Classical (Greek and Latin) meters are defined by these quantitative patterns. Most of our terminology and theoretical apparatus for talking about meter are modeled on Greek and Latin authors, and this can lead to confusion if we forget that the fundamental basis of meter in English -- stress -- is not the same as quantity.

Mostly because of the prestige of Classical poems and meters, there have been many serious attempts to write English quantitative verse. It would be wrong to call them doomed. English syllables do have different lengths; this is one of many aspects of the sound of words that poets pay attention to. Only the hope of elevating quantity to the status of a metrical system seems misguided.

A quatrain is a four-line stanza. It is usually, though not always, rhymed. Normal rhyme patterns are

a   a   x   a
b   b   a   a
a   b   x   b
b   a   a   b

Quatrains are perhaps the most common stanzas.

Rhythm is the distribution of events in time. For us to perceive this distribution as rhythmic, the events have to be commensurable; that is, of the same kind; that is, linked in our minds.

For most of us, seeing (1) an apple, (2) a car accident, (3) a cloud, doesn't constitute a rhythm. Sometimes poems make us re-see the world in ways that find rhythms in what we don't ordinarily take that way.

The events we hear as making linguistic rhythm are linguistic events: sequences of stress, juncture, vowel-sounds, and so on.

"Rhythm" is also an opposite, or complement, of "meter." See Reference, rhythm and meter.

eye - ON' - ik
(adjective also eye - ON' - ik)

Rising Ionic is a fancy name for the combination of a pyrrhic and a spondee. The rule on pyrrhics (only before a spondee) dictates that all pyrrhics belong to rising Ionics. Sometimes the rising Ionic is called a "double iamb." That is, you can mark the combination of pyrrhic and spondee as a single foot --

x / | x x / / | . . .
the man with the fat lip . . .

-- if you remember that the rising Ionic replaces two iambs.

It might be useful to think of the rising Ionic as a single substitution that happens to cross a foot-boundary. The last syllable of one iamb is exchanged with the first syllable of the next. This might help explain why the variation is so common.

Scansion is a system for roughly diagramming the relation between the rhythm of a line of verse and the metrical pattern that underlies or is imposed on it. (See Reference, "rhythm and meter.") You do this by marking stress and slack syllables, and dividing the resulting marks into feet. (See Reference, Seven-Step Method, and the First Tutorial from Map.)

To scan a poem is not to understand its rhythmic character in detail, though it is a good beginning. The best use of scansion is to aid your own awareness of the poem's complex sound.

SKAY' - zon
(no adjectival form)

A scazon (from Greek, "limping") is a trochee at the end of an iambic line. The rule on the amphibrach prohibits this (see Reference, Substitution Rules). If you use a scazon in a scansion, you have probably made a mistake.

Yet poets (this is Philip Larkin) break rules:

x / | x / | x / | x / | / x
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases

Still, this line rhymes with

x / | x (/)| x / |x / x
. . . avoid them as unlucky places

So the apparent trochee on "cases" is probably technically a defective amphibrach: not / x, but ^/ x. So even behind this exception to the rules, we can see an adherence to the deeper principles of sound and dynamic structure that really constitute metrical writing and reading.

PEE' - on
(no adjectival form)

A "second paeon" (second because the second of the four syllables gets the single stress) is a foot consisting of a slack, a stress, and two slacks:

x / x x
re - PUB - li - can

Rule: the second paeon occurs only at the end of a line whose last two syllables are slack and whose final syllable is not promoted. (Often, if you think you have one, you're one foot short in the line, and the last syllable is promoted and belongs to an iamb.) In practice, the second paeon is confined to trisyllabic rhymes:

x / x x x / x x
"We've given her / the scrivener."

A slack (marked x) is an unstressed syllable. In the phrase, "want the change," "the" is a slack:

/ x /
want the change

So is the first syllable of the word "desire":

x /

SPON' - dee
adjective: spon - DAY' - ik

A spondee is a foot consisting of two stresses:

/ /

Iambic verse permits a spondaic substitution in any foot. (When the spondee follows a pyrrhic -- the only time the pyrrhic is allowed -- the combination is called a rising Ionic.)

Much "strong" iambic verse (Robert Browning's, for instance) uses as many as one or two spondees per line on average. Here's a line by Milton that is famous for its spondees:

/ / | / / | / / | x / | x /
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death

It may be outdone, in the spondee sweepstakes by this line from Larkin's "Church Going":

/ / | / / | / / x x | / /
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off

(The line ends with a rising Ionic.)

The term "sprung rhythm" was invented by Gerard Manley Hopkins. He seems to have meant that the inversion of two consecutive feet from "rising" to "falling" (or vice versa) -- for example, the substitution of two trochees for iambs -- radically shifts or disturbs our sense of the line's movement. He was right, and it's useful to have a name for that effect.

And surely he was right. Listen to this peculiar line:

/ x | / x | x / | x x | / /
Jumping high o'er the Shrubs of the rough Ground

This from Alexander Pope -- usually very regular in his use of meter; here, enjoying an obvious special effect of sound imitating sense.

(The linguist Paul Kiparsky has argued that Hopkins's system is more radically different from usual English iambic practice than this glib note indicates — and in fact that it more closely resembles one of the standard meters in Finnish.)

Stanzas are groups of lines into which a poem is divided. Usually stanzas are separated by blank lines. Often they are rhymed. If blank lines don't set stanzas apart from each other visually, rhyme is the only way they can be identified.

See Advanced Topics, "Verse Forms," for some common stanzas; and see quatrain for the most common of all.

Most stanzaic poems maintain a constant number of lines per stanza, though there are exceptions; see "Ode" among the "Verse Forms" in Advanced Topics. In some free verse, a constant stanza length is the only immediately observable regularity; in other free verse, stanza lengths as well as line lengths are irregular.

A stress (marked /) is a syllable that you emphasize (or stress) when you say it, such as the first syllable of "apple" or "garden." The stress patterns of polysyllabic words can be found in the dictionary.

Stress is relative: the third syllable of the word "appetite" gets more stress than the second, but less than the first. In a line of verse, "appetite" might be scanned

/ x x / x /
ap - pe - tite (or) ap - pe - tite

depending on the metrical context and surrounding words. See Reference, Promoted Stresses.

"Syntax" can simply mean the order of words in a sentence -- the difference between "First me!" and "Me first!" But more broadly, it means how words work together to make up sentences. It's syntax, for instance, that tells us that in "resolve the conflict" the word "conflict" is a noun (which is stressed on its first syllable), while in "their views conflict" it's a verb (stressed on its second syllable). Syntax is the systematic context within which words have meanings, beyond simply pointing at things one by one.

A word is a sound, and it may refer to a thing -- and it also usually occurs within a pattern which we call "syntactical." In this sense, syntax is a name for the relation among words, and the relations control the meanings. At the same time, "syntax" denotes the ongoing continuity of a statement that the words are constructing.

Syntax is essential to poetry, as to all language. In verse it enters into special relationships; see Reference, counterpoint.

PEE' - on
(no adjectival form)

A third paeon (third because the third of the four syllables gets the stress) is a foot consisting of two slacks, a stress, and another slack:

x x / x
Ca - li - FOR - nia

Warning: in iambic verse, only the rare combination of one extra slack before the last stress (like anapestic substitution) and another after it (like amphibrachic substitution) can give rise to a third paeon:

xx/ + x/x = xx/x.

Here's a rare example:

x / | x (/)|x / | x / | x x / x
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after

In anapestic verse, the third paeon is the equivalent of the amphibrach in iambics, and is common. See Advanced Topics, "Anapestic Verse."

TRO' - kee
adjective: tro - KAY' - ik

A trochee is a foot consisting of a stress followed by a slack:

/ x
RIB - bon

Iambic verse permits a trochaic substitution in any foot but the last, though it's also rare (and destabilizing) in the second foot.

English poetry includes a small amount of trochaic verse, verse whose basic foot is the trochee.

For related topics, see scazon and sprung rhythm.