A foot is a conventional metrical unit, whose boundaries need not coincide with those of words or phrases. Any two-element meter can be analyzed in terms of feet: the system was invented for Classical meters (Greek and Latin) based on the quantities and junctures of syllables; and we use it now for English meters based instead on accent and syllable juncture.

In English, feet are groups of one to four syllables in certain patterns of stresses and slacks. Here is a list of all the feet you will ever need to know to scan English verse. They are listed in order of frequency in normal iambic verse. Some at the end of the list are rare or nonexistent. All the feet named in the list are in the Glossary pop-up list at the bottom of this and other cards, with more complete examples and notes on special usages.

See Reference, "Substitution."

Foot Names Foot Marks
iamb x /
trochee / x
spondee / /
anapest x x /
defective foot ^ /
amphibrach x / x
pyrrhic x x
dactyl / x x
second paeon x / x x
amphimacer / x /
bacchius x / /
third paeon x x / x
palimbacchius / / x
molossus / / /

The influence of rhythm on meter (see Rhythm and Meter) appears in metrical substitution: replacement of the normal foot -- the iamb, in iambic pentameter -- by some other foot. Which substitutions are allowed varies from one style and historical period to another. Here are eight general rules to guide you in the scansion of almost all iambic verse. They are listed in "common-mistake" order:

  1. The number of feet in a line does not vary.
  2. The pyrrhic (x x) occurs only before a spondee (/ /).
  3. The amphibrach (x / x) occurs only and always at the end of a line ending with a single slack syllable.
  4. The second paeon (x / x x) occurs only and always at the end of a line ending with two slacks (where rule #1 makes you sure that the last syllable is not promoted).
  5. Trochees (/ x) are very common, except at the ends of lines (rule #3) and in the second foot of the line.
  6. Generally, prefer the more regular scansion -- the one with a higher proportion of more common feet (see List of Feet).
  7. If your scansion shows too many spondees, suspect iambs. At first, the more carefully you listen, the more everything sounds stressed.
  8. If your scansion shows too many anapests (x x /), suspect elision.

The influence of meter on rhythm (see Rhythm and Meter) appears in "promoted stresses." Sometimes the metrical pattern requires a stress where one is barely heard in the speech-rhythm of the line. Like all stress, promoted stress is relative: not strong absolutely, just stronger than the syllables on either side of it. In this line by Wordsworth, the stresses in parentheses (which is one good way of marking promotion) are good examples:

x / | / / | x (/)| x /|x(/)
A sight so touching in its majesty

Prepositions like "in," not usually emphasized in speech, are common candidates for metrical promotion. In a three-syllable word like "majesty" whose first syllable gets primary stress (which is common in English) the last is often promoted, though remember that in another context we would scan

x /| x x / | x / | x / | x /
His majesty likes his fiddlers, bowl, and pipe

In the common pattern /xxx/, if the Number-of-Feet rule dictates that you must promote a stress, choose the middle one: / | x (/) | /. The pattern /xxxx/ is harder:

Difficult Promotions

The pattern / x x x / is hard, because there are two candidates for promotion. Most often, the second of the two gets promoted:

x /| x x (/)|x /| x
a smattering of intention . . .

But the real principles here get complicated. In / x x x /, choose whichever of the two candidate slack syllables (the second or third) fits the earliest category in this list:

  1. a secondary stress (noted in the dictionary) on a polysyllable;
  2. a monosyllabic word; or
  3. a spare syllable attached to a polysyllable.

Any candidate-syllable will fit one of these categories. You choose the syllable that fits the category highest on the list. Some examples:

/| x x (/)|x /| x
matter of inattention
secondary stress beats monosyllable
/ |x x (/)|x /| x
scattering of attention
monosyllable beats spare syllable
/ |x x (/)|x / | x
shattering inattention
secondary stress beats spare syllable
/| x x (/?)|x /| x
matter of an intention
two monosyllable; ambiguous!

More Examples

x(/)| x / | x (/)| x / | x /
I do not think that they will sing to me

We know from the previous line that "they" are the Sirens, so the pronoun needs no stress. But "me" is stressed because they did sing to others, such as Odysseus. See contrastive stress.

x /| x (/)|x/| x (/)| x /
Enigmas, executioners and rules

One lone word can contain more than one promoted stress -- though to mark the first syllable of "executioners" as a full stress would not be incorrect.

x (/)| x / | x (/)| x / | x /
You are depending on his word, and will
Ben Jonson

Forms of "to be" are frequently heard as auxiliary verbs, and so not stressed in speech; so here, "are" is promoted, not a full stress.

x / |x / | x /|x (/)|x /
Eternal tempest never to be calmed

Here "be" doesn't even get a promotion. Important point: since stress is relative, we hardly ever stress the syllable immediately before or after a definite stress. If you find

/ (/) x


x (/) /

in your scansion, be very suspicious.

Here's how to scan a line of metrical verse:

  1. Listen to the line. Read it aloud, experimenting with different ways of emphasizing it.
  2. Mark polysyllables.
  3. Mark stressed monosyllables.
  4. Mark slack syllables.
  5. Divide the line into feet.
  6. Check your work by reading aloud. Go back to steps 2 through 5 as necessary.
  7. Go back to step 1. (And step 8 would be the same.)

Read below for details, or see a worked example.

Step Two, details: Marking Polysyllables

Mark the primary stress in any word with more than one syllable. You can find this information in your dictionary. For "silence," your dictionary will say something like si'-lens. That is, the word has two syllables, and the first one is stressed:


(Don't fill in the slack mark on the second syllable until the next step.) Words longer than two syllables may have more than one strong stress:

/ /

A word like "majesty" might be either

/ / /
majesty (or) majesty,

depending on the metrical context and the surrounding words.

Step Three, details: Marking Monosyllables

Mark stressed monosyllabic words. Whether a monosyllable is stressed or not is correlated with its "part of speech," as given in your dictionary:

  • noun
  • verb
  • adjective
  • adverb
  • interjection
  • demonstrative pronoun
  • interrogative pronoun
  • article
  • auxiliary verb
  • preposition
  • conjunction

However, to decide tricky cases -- especially pronouns (see Reference, "Stress on Pronouns") -- you must listen to the meaning of the line. What is the difference between "Well, I don't love only your body" and "Well, I don't love only your body"?

For another common problem, see the note below:

Step Three, note: Compound Verbs

Many verbs in English are actually made up of two words: the verb itself and a modifying adverb (or preposition or particle -- different linguists use different terms for this). We hear "catch up" and "catch on" as quite different words.

We express that difference by emphasizing (stressing) the differentiating adverb as much as the actual verb -- or even more, when the verb is a very common one. So a sentence like "Helen put on my coat" is scanned

/ x x / x /
Helen put on my coat

rather than

/ x / x x / (wrong)
Helen put on my coat

For the general principle behind this habit of pronunciation, see Reference, "Contrastive Stress."

Step Four, details: Marking Slacks

Mark all the rest of the syllables as slack, using the x mark. Use the dictionary to check how many syllables there are in words you aren't sure about.

Some words have different numbers of syllables in different dialects of English: "flower" (one or two syllables?), "probably" (two or three), and so on. As a good rule of thumb, give a word all the syllables your dictionary says it might have.

Step Five, details: Marking Foot Divisions

Divide the line into feet, using the | sign to mark the boundaries. The possibilities in this step are governed by the rules of metrical substition; see the Reference Substitution Rules as well as the List of Feet.

It's often easier to start at the end of a line. Also, as a starting point, remember that in iambic pentameter, a decasyllabic (ten-syllable) line is often simply divided into pairs of syllables. Lines that turn out to be composed entirely of two-syllable feet are very common:

/ x x / x / / / x /


x x / / x / x x / /


/ x x / / x x / / /

Trisyllabic substitutions make it harder:

x x / / x x / x / x /

has eleven syllables, so there must be an anapest; but there are two plausible candidates.

Things occasionally get really tricky. These two lines both scan properly, though one is the same as the other plus two more syllables:

^/| / x |x / | x / |x x /
One day is enough to count at a time.
/ /| x x / | x / | x x / | x /
One day at a time's enough to account for life.

We have a habit, in speaking English, which can be summarized this way: whenever we want to make a distinction between two phrases, we stress what differs between the phrases, not what they have in common. An example: "Are you a fan of the Chicago White Sox, or the Chicago Cubs"?

The same habit applies even when only one side of the contrast is explicit: "Do you like the Chicago White Sox?" It follows, therefore, that the question, "Do you like the Chicago White Sox?" (though identical in grammar) doesn't make sense. It refers implicitly to a baseball team (the Topeka White Sox?) that doesn't exist.

You can deduce another general principle from this, by turning around the one stated above: when a speaker stresses a word unexpectedly, this creates (in the mind of the listener) a distinction; and the listener goes on to imagine the unstated other half of the contrast. "That's what he says" means something like "That's not what he thinks" or "-- but he doesn't know what he's talking about."

This powerful mechanism is at work in at least two prosodic areas: the expressive use of lineation (see Reference, free verse), and the stressing of pronouns (see Reference, stress on pronouns).

As a metaphor taken from music, "counterpoint" helps remind us how basic sound is to most poetry. In music, the term indicates how two or more voices (melodic lines) keep their individuality as they move, while at the same time making a harmony. It's a way of talking about the relation between two independent impulses that are nevertheless aware of each other. (The word can also be used as a metaphor for the relation between, or among, people.)

As applied to verse, "counterpoint" calls attention to the way a single word, for instance, belongs simultaneously to a line and to a sentence. When a sentence ("how well they understood its human position") is broken between lines --

how well they understood
its human position

-- the pause we automatically insert gives words near the break ("human") an emphasis they would not have otherwise. By the principle of "contrastive stress," that emphasis suggests oppositions (human vs. animal, human vs. divine), and therefore meanings.

This semantic use of lineation is only one kind of counterpoint. In Robert Lowell's lines,

she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore
and lets them fall

another system -- rhyme -- enters the harmony. Meter, alliteration, stanza breaks -- many prosodic "voices" can be counterpointed.

To "elide" something is to leave it out. Elision in verse is the fusing of two unstressed syllables into one unstressed syllable for metrical purposes. The conditions for elision are these:

  1. the first syllable must end with a vowel or h (or sometimes n, m, or r); and
  2. the second syllable must begin with a vowel or h.


-x- / | x / | x / | x / |x /
The unsounded deep, and through the void immense

The importance of elision varies considerably from one historical period to another. The les acceptable trisyllabic (anapestic) substitutions are, the more important elision becomes. See the history of trisyllabic substitution in "Advanced Topics."

In some editions of older poems, metrically necessary elisions are marked:

x / | -x- / | -x- / | x /|x /
Yet dearely ' I love you ' and would be loved fain

In most editions, elisions internal to a word (technically, this is called syncope) are marked:

/ / | x / | x (/)| x / | x /
All bright and glitt'ring in the smokeless air

The "free" in "free verse" means "nonmetrical" -- that's all. (It's sometimes taken as promising organic, uncorseted individual expression. But if that's a desirable quality, writing in one or another form of verse is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce it.) Early critics of free verse, around the First World War, complained that in the absence of meter there could be no prosody. This equation was false. Indeed, how prosody remained is hinted by the other half of the term: free verse remained verse, and lineation provides powerful controls over the rhythmic life of words.

Free verse comprises not a prosody but an evolving array of prosodies. The free verse of Whitman, of Eliot, of Williams, of Creeley, of Ashbery, differ greatly in average length of lines, the lines' overall rhythmic shape, the relation between line and syntax, the importance of spacing and other devices of print, etc. On the other hand, almost all nonmetrical prosodies depend on some kind of counterpoint; and most of them somehow play off the line and the pattern of syntax against each other.

Unlike meter, the control exerted by free verse tends to be local in origin as well as in effect. That is, there's no overall, externally imposed system for determining things like line length (though any poem makes its own characteristic gestures). Since the poet's decisions appear to be made on the spur of the moment, free verse can claim to encourage "organic form" -- as long as one doesn't fall into the simplistic trap of concluding that metrical verse is mechanical.

A meter is a prosody that organizes rhythm according to numerical rules. (An old name for meter is "numbers.") In English, the elements measured (counted) by meter are usually syllables and accents, so English meters are generally known as accentual-syllabic. Because the system is based on two elements, we think in terms of feet. (See Reference, List of Feet.)

In this system, each meter has a two-word name that indicates the basic foot and the number of feet in the line. See names of meters. (Within limits, different feet may be substituted in the metrical line; see Substitution Rules. Generally, the length of the line does not vary; see number-of-feet rule.) We borrowed all the wonderful-sounding names from Greek: iambic pentameter (a line of five iambs, with variations); anapestic trimeter (a line of three anapests); trochaic tetrameter (four trochees).

In practice, only the iamb, the anapest, and occasionally the trochee and dactyl are used as the bases of English meters. The medium lengths are naturally the most common: pentameter, tetrameter, trimeter, hexameter.

It's very important to distinguish rhythm and meter; see the Reference.

The name of an accentual-syllabic meter is made of the name of the basic foot (turned into an adjective) followed by a word indicating the number of feet. (See Reference, List of Feet and Substitution Rules.)

  • iambic hexameter
  • trochaic trimeter
  • anapestic tetrameter
Feet Per Line Name Pronunciation
1 monometer (mon-OM' - e - ter)
2 dimeter (DIM' - e - ter)
3 trimeter (TRIM' - e - ter)
4 tetrameter (tet - RAM' - e - ter)
5 pentameter (pen - TAM' - e - ter)
6 hexameter (hex - AM' - e - ter)
7 heptameter (hep - TAM' - e - ter)
8 octameter (ok - TAM' - e - ter)
9 nonameter (non - AM' - e - ter)

As a rule, once you know the length of the metrical line in a poem, only a mistake in your scansion will produce a line departing from that norm. In other words: if in an iambic pentameter poem you find one tetrameter or hexameter, it's probably wrong.

How do you know how long the lines are to begin with? The real answer is that you soon learn to hear this as you read the first line or two of the poem. If that doesn't yet work for you, try this: count the number of syllables in a few lines and divide by the number of lines. An average near 10 suggests suggests pentameter, 8 for tetrameter, and so on. (This assumes iambic meters. Anapestic verse is usually identifiable by its triple-time sound. Anapestic tetrameters average about 12 syllables, but the averages are not as close as in iambic verse.)

One major exception to the number-of-feet rule is regular stanzaic variation. Examples: the odd-numbered lines in ballad stanza are tetrameters, the others trimeters. (See "Verse Forms" among the Advanced Topics.) Song-based or song-like poems may vary line-length irregularly (see Drummond's "Inexorable" among the Additional Exercises). Other exceptions: in 18th and late-17th century blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), occasional hexameters were allowed. Arnold's "Dover Beach" varies iambic line-lengths freely. And sometimes a poet introduces unregulated variations on purpose -- but usually for a violent rhythmic effect that you can identify easily by listening.

Reading poetry means reading slowly and aloud. (There are poems to which this doesn't apply; but they're rare and obvious -- usually visual or "concrete" poems.) Slow and aloud. Otherwise you miss the pleasure -- which is inseparable from the meaning -- of the poem. To read these lines from the end of a poem by Charles Tomlinson

her doom (unknown),
her unknown green

and not to hear the combinatoric play of its sounds, is not to read it.

Try this experiment: if you were reading in a non-poetic way and came across this passage by Ishmael Reed

this poem has yr eyes
this poem has his head
this poem has his arms
this poem has his fingers
this poem has his fingertips

you could see at a glance the repetitious structure and conclude that you need only read the last word of each line. Your eyes could just skip over the rest. This is true in one sense -- no information is communicated in the repetition. But if you also see how false it is, you understand something essential about poetry.

We sometimes speak of traditional metrical verse as characterized by "rhyme and rhythm." Rhyme is a recurrence of sound, and is therefore a rhythmic structure. Since rhymes most often (and most obviously) occur at the ends of lines, rhyme contributes a relatively slow rhythm to the whole texture of a poem -- on a scale somewhere between feet and stanzas.

Rhymes whose final sounds (the last vowel and any consonants after it) are exactly the same ("lanes / trains") are called full or perfect rhymes. When the same word is used to rhyme with itself we call it identical rhyme. Words whose final sounds are different, but close enough to be recognized as rhyming, are called slant rhymes, off rhymes, or imperfect rhymes: "bland / stands"; "efface / phase"; "find / fanned". Rhymes that include not one but two syllables ("rises / devises") used to be called "feminine"; let's call them two-syllable rhymes. Three-syllable rhymes are also possible: "aristocracy / democracy."

When one or more rhyming words do not fall at the ends of lines, the rhyme is called internal. Just as three or more lines can rhyme with each other, an internal rhyme can run through a series of lines. Since the "sameness" which rhyme depends on has many degrees, rhyme shades off at the edges into assonance and consonance.

Meter is a pattern imposed on or perceived in a complex rhythm -- not the rhythm itself. The poet imposes the pattern, and the reader cooperates by perceiving it. Meter is abstract and unvarying; rhythm is concrete, and unique to each line. The relation between meter and rhythm -- abstract principle and concrete instance -- is like the relation between a genetic pattern (the Human Being) and an individual (you); or between "the human face" (two eyes horizontally arranged above a nose, two ears outboard, etc.) and each of the thousands of faces you immediately recognize.

All the millions of lines of English poetry that are in iambic pentameter are in the same meter; each one has a different rhythm. These two lines

x /| x / | x / | x / | x /
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
x / | x / | x / | x / | x /
I do not think that they will sing to me

both embody iambic pentameter (and strictly), but they sound quite different.

Almost everything important about metrical verse depends on this distinction. Scansion, for instance, simply diagrams the relation between meter and rhythm. Foot substitutions show the influence of rhythm on meter, and promotions show the influence of meter on rhythm. What you hear when you hear metrical poetry well -- and you must hear it to understand it -- is largely the counterpoint between rhythm and meter in one line after another, along with the continuing counterpoint between syntax and verse-lines. (See Reference, counterpoint.)

In step 3 of the Seven-Step Method, you decide which monosyllabic words are to be stressed. Nouns are important because they say what the sentence is about; interjections are stressed because their whole purpose is to create emphasis; and so on. But among the trickier cases, pronouns cause the most problems. It's tempting to argue that they, just like the nouns they stand in for, tell us what's being talked about, and so must be stressed. But a pronoun is really a declaration that we already know what the noun is. If the whole poem is about "I" and "you," why stress every instance of those two words?

Of course it often isn't that simple. Consider this line from Yeats's "Leda and the Swan," about Zeus in the form of a swan raping the mortal woman Leda: "He holds her helpless breast upon his breast." This could well be scanned as a regular iambic pentameter. But one could also argue, from the principle of contrastive stress, that "his breast" should be a spondee, because "his" is opposed to "her." (She is helpless; he is not. Her "breast is both a human chest and a woman's mammary gland; his "breast" is the hard, feathered front of an unnaturally large bird.) If this scansion

x / | x / | x / | x / | / /
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast

helps you hear what's going on in the line's dramatization of the scene, it's useful.

To put it in a phrase: stress on pronouns is almost entirely controlled by the principle of contrastive stress.

Though we sometimes loosely define prose as the opposite of poetry, it is more accurate to oppose prose and verse. Verse differs visibly from prose, even from across the room:

Some Prose

** ** ***** ****** ******* *** *********** ******* ***** *** ***** ** ** ******** ** **** **** ** ******** ***** ********. *** ***** ** ** *********** *** **** **** *** ***** *** ** ************* *** ** ******* ********* ** * ** ********* ********* **** ** ****** ** ***** ** ***** **** ******** *** ** **** **** ***** ** *********.

* **** * ********* * ***** ************** ******** ** *** ******** * **** ***** * **** ******* ** *** * ***** ******* **** ** **** ** *** **** ****** *** **** ** * ** *** **** **** *** ** ****** ** * ***** ** ** *********** *** **** **** *** ***** *** ** ************* *** ** ******* ********* ** * ** ********* ********* **** ** ****** ** ***** ** ***** **** ******** *** ** **.

* ***** ****** ******* *** *********** ******* ***** *** ***** ** ** ******** ** **** **** ** ******** ***** ********. *** ***** ** ** *********** *** **** **** *** ***** *** ***** ******* ** *** * ***** ******* **** ** **** ** *** **.

Some Verse

***** *** *** ****
*** *** ** ** ******** ***

** * ***** ****** *******
* *****
*** *** ******

*** *** **** ********
*** **** ****
** ***

*** **** *** * ****
******* **
******* ****** ********

*** *****
** ********
** ******

Verse is language in lines. The lines into which prose is divided are meaningless artifacts of the printing process and the shape of the page. In verse, the line breaks are deliberate, determined by some meaningful and perhaps systematic method; they control the rhythm of the words, and contribute to the meaning of the language.

"Poetry" is a word that emphasizes content and value ("poetic" vs. "prosaic"; "sheer poetry"; etc.). Verse and prose, on the other hand, are alternative printed forms of language.

A poem is the language of an act of attention. Poetry is most often written in verse. So lines must have something to do with attention -- creating it, enforcing it, guiding it.

Poetry, verse, attention, and rhythm come together in the idea of prosody.