Basic English Prosody
G. M. Palmer
English prosody, the study of the rhythms of language, is based on the patterns of stress found in everyday speech. In the English language, all syllables are either stressed or unstressed. English metric poetry is built upon varying the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Recognizing the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in English is quite simple.
In English, the stress of the syllable is generally based on two things: either its importance in the etymology of the word or its placement around stronger syllables. The former applies to most nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The latter applies to single-syllable pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and linking verbs. With few exceptions, articles are never stressed.
For nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, the basic rules are:
1: Single-syllable nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are always
NOW the MAN had RAN in his BLUE PANTS
2: Bi-syllabic non-compound nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are
almost always stressed at the root, that is, prefixes and suffixes are not stressed:
UNDer the PURPle CLOVer the SHOPer SHUDdered
The few exceptions to this have to do more with accepted
pronunciation than with actual logic. “REboot,” for instance, ought to be pronounced only “reBOOT.” In usage, however, it is pronounced both ways.
Note: bi-syllabic prepositions also follow this pattern:
UNder, OVer, beSIDE, etc.
3: Multi-syllabic nouns, action verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are again almost
always stressed at the root. Prefixes and suffixes or their constituent parts, however, may be stressed if there is an unstressed syllable between them, the stressed root, and the next stressed syllable:
imPORTant MESSengers POINTed OUT to comMANder RICHardson
the IMperCEPTiBILiTY of HIS aBYSmal THEOry
As you can see, large multi-syllabic words (“imperceptibility”)
often break down into exactly iambic patterns.
For single-syllable pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and linking verbs, the
rules are not as cut and dry. Once grasped, however, they are easily applied:
1: Single-syllable pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and linking verbs are never
stressed if they appear next to a single-syllable noun, action verb, adjective, or adverb:
NOW is the WINter OF our DISconTENT
JOE is KING in this TOWN
2: Single-syllable pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and linking verbs are never stressed if they appear next to a stressed part of a multi-syllabic noun,
action verb, adjective, or adverb:
the gaRAGE had FALLen in HURricane WINDS
3: Single-syllable pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and linking verbs are always stressed if there is an unstressed syllable between them and the next stressed syllable:
if HE had RIDden IN the paRADE, he WOULD have DIED.
4: As they are infrequently in between two unstressed syllables, articles are never
stressed. Even if they do fall between unstressed syllables (as in the example below), the effect is more of creating a pyrrhic foot than an actual stress:
BOTH FALL ROUGHly INto an iAMbic PATtern
Once the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables are understood, groups of stressed and unstressed syllables can be gathered into metric feet. The three most important metric feet in English are the iamb, the trochee, and the anapest.
The iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one:
the KING x /
The trochee is a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one:
FASTer / x
An anapest is two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one:
in the EAST x x /
Other important feet are the dactyl, the amphibrach, the pyrrhic foot, the spondee, and the ionic. There are dozens more feet, but the eight mentioned make up nearly all of English prosody.
The dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones:
(ironically enough) ANapest / x x
The amphibrach is a stressed syllable surrounded by two unstressed ones:
aPARTment x / x
The pyrrhic foot is two unstressed syllables (and is generally rare except in ionic
of the x x
The spondee is two stressed syllables (most compound words are spondees):
BASEBALL / /
The ionic foot is a pyrrhic foot followed by a spondee:
for the BASEBALL x x / /
In regular metrical poetry, a line is counted by the type and number of metrical feet. Lines are iambic, trochaic, anapestic, dactylic, amphibrachic, spondaic, or ionic. It is essentially impossible for a line to be pyrrhic, and it is rare to see wholly spondaic or ionic poems. The numbers used for counting feet are mono-, di-, tri-, tetra-, penta-, hexa-, hepta-, and octo-. Generally lines of poetry are no more than eight feet. In practice they are usually three to six feet. In any case, the prefix is followed by the word meter, hence monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, and octameter. To properly name a metrical line, first take the type of dominant meter and then follow it with the number of feet per line:
To determine the number of feet and the dominant meter for a poem, scan the poem’s lines using the above rules. Count the number of feet and the type. If a type is used consistently in more than half of the feet per line, it is the dominant type for that line. If a poem is built of lines that are consistently in a metrical pattern, it is said to be metric. If a metric poem is built of lines that are consistently in the same metrical pattern, it is said to be regular.
The iambic foot is by far the most important in English prosody. Written English and spoken English both fall roughly into an iambic pattern. That is, when the patterns of written or spoken English are mapped, or scanned, the resulting map is iambic in nature.
WRITten ENGlish and SPOKen ENGlish BOTH FALL ROUGHly INto an iAMbic PATtern. that IS when the PATterns of WRITten or SPOKen ENGlish are MAPPED, or SCANNED, the reSULTing MAP is iAMbic in NATure.
Scanned, this would appear:
/ x | / x | x / | x / | x / | / / | x / | x x | x / | x / x ||
x / | x x / | x x / | x x / | x / | x x / | x / | x x / | x / | x x / | x x / x
It is acknowledged that the rhythms here are arguably more anapestic than iambic. It is undeniable, however, that even in prose the rhythms are solidly up and down beats, stressed syllables followed by unstressed ones, and amazingly regular.
Armed with this knowledge, English poets since the time of Chaucer have employed iambic rhythms in their poetry. Even the Modernists, who strove to “break the pentameter,” continued to use the rhythms of natural English speech in their poetry. It is important, then, to understand the general iambic line and its possible variations:
1: English iambic lines are generally trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, or
2: Variations within lines are important to keep the rhythm of the poem from becoming unbearably predictable. Variations serve the same purpose in poetry as fills or riffs do in music.
3: The more feet per line, the more variations are acceptable.
4: There are two types of variation: substituting feet and adding or subtracting syllables at the beginning or end of the line.
5: The most common form of substitution is called a trochaic reversal. It consists
of replacing an iamb with a trochee at the beginning of a line or after a full
stop, or caesura:
STAYing at JOE’S was FUN / x | x / | x /
the BIRD is DEAD. WHY did you MURder IT? x / | x / || / x | x / | x /
6: An anapest can always be substituted for an iamb. This is generally not done
more than twice in one line:
can JOEseph reCYCle TRASH toDAY? x / | x x / | x / | x /
7: A pyrrhic foot or a spondee can always take the place of an iamb. Also, an
ionic foot (a pyrrhic foot followed by a spondee) can always take the place of two iambs:
they BOTH FALL INto an iAMbic LINE x / | / / | x / | x x | x / | x /
the CAR it was RIGHT HERE x / | x x | / /
8: A line can be made acephalic by omitting the first unstressed syllable:
JOE you CAN’T be SLEEPing NOW / | x / | x / | x /
9: A line can be made hypercatalectic by adding an extra (or two) unstressed
syllable at the end:
it’s NOT the TIME for ACTion x / | x / | x / x
Using these rules, it is possible to scan any line of English poetry. Prosody is not important to enjoying a poem. Prosody is important, however, to appreciating the craft and techniques applied in creating poetry. An understanding of prosody creates better poets and more sympathetic readers. Sadly, an understanding of prosody in the general populace has been made impossible by over-complication and ignorance. As a result, many readers feel unable to appreciate or understand poetry and many poets are unable to understand the rhythms underlying their work. It is hoped that this primer will make an often overly complicated subject clear.