Guide to Prosody

Terms for Describing Prosody

There are many different ways of describing the spoken cadences of verse. Various languages and poetic traditions listen for stress, vowel length, syllable count, or some combination of these three, and poets experiment with all of them. What follows below is an outline of the basics. The following terms describe the generally agreed-upon system for approximating, in writing, our speech rhythms. It is a reasonably efficient system, but it's important to remember that it's not perfect: there are far more subtle variations in speech rhythms than the simple binary of "stressed" and "unstressed" (or, in quantitative meters, "long" and "short") can register.

Types of verse:

Quantitative Most common in classical languages, this type of verse counts vowel-length.
Accentual This verse counts stress only.
Syllabic This verse counts syllables only, ignoring stress or vowel length
This is the most common verse in English, and it counts both accents (stresses) and syllables.

Some general terms:

rhythm the patterns of stress, vowel-length, and pauses in language. Regularly repeating rhythm is called meter.
meter a regularly repeating rhythm, divided for convenience into feet. Meter describes an underlying framework; actual poems rarely sustain the perfect regularity that the meter would imply (see variation).
scansion the identification and analysis of poetic rhythm and meter. To "scan" a line of poetry is to mark its stressed and unstressed syllables.
variation brief deviation from the metrical framework. Counterpoint, modulation, tension, syncopation, and interplay are all terms for describing the interaction between the pattern of stress the meter prescribes and the actual pattern we hear: this interaction is the source of most prosodic pleasure, and is the primary motivation for the practice of scansion.
substitution the substitution of one foot for another. This is a more specific way of describing variation.
reversed foot a foot whose pattern of stresses and unstressed syllables is exactly opposite that of the original: e.g. an anapest is the reverse of a dactyl. If a poem substitutes a troche for an iamb in the first foot of a line, that line is said to have a reversed initial foot.
initial occurring at the beginning of the line, e.g. initial rhyme is the rhyming of the lines' first words. Medial describes the middle of a line, and terminalthe end of the line.


Terms that describe the number of lines in a stanza. Note: a stanza need not have lines of uniform length or rhythm. Click here for a glossary of common poetic forms.

A two-line stanza is called couplet.
Three   tercet
Four   quatrain
Five lines   cinquain
Six   sixain or a sestet
Seven   heptameter
Eight   octave


Terms that describe the number of feet in a line. Note: while most meters are composed in just one kind of foot per line, poets frequently vary the prescribed rhythm. For English prosody, a good rule of thumb is to count the number of beats (stresses) per line.

One foot is called monometer (pronounced "mo-NAW-muh-ter")
Two   dimeter (pronounced "DI-muh-ter")
Three   trimeter (pronounced "TRIM-uh-ter")
Four   tetrameter (pronounced "te-TRA-muh-ter")
Five   pentameter (pronounced "pent-AH-muh-ter";blank verse is a common type of pentameter.)
Six   hexameter (pronounced "hex-AH-muh-ter";alexandrines are a common type of hexameter).
Seven   heptameter (pronounced "hept-AH-muh-ter";fourteeners are a common type of heptameter)..
Eight   octometer (pronounced "oct-AW-muh-ter")
Nine   nonometer (pronounced "non-NAW-muh-ter")


Terms that describe the number of syllables and pattern of stresses (or vowel length) in a foot.
iamb ˘ ´ an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (or, in quantitative verse, a short vowel followed by a long vowel). Verse composed of iambs is iambic.
  "about" is an example of a natural iamb.
trochee ´ ˘ a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. Verse in troches is trochaic.
  "pattern" is a natural troche.
anapest ˘ ˘ ´ two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. Verse in anapests is anapestic.
  "understand" is a natural anapest.
dactyl ´ ˘ ˘ a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. (A trick for remembering this is that "dactyl" comes from the Greek word for finger, and your finger has a long joint followed by two shorter joints.) Verse in dactyls is dactylic.
  "credible" is a natural dactyl.
spondee ´ ´ two stressed syllables. Verse in spondees is spondaic.
  "no way!" is a natural spondee.
pyrrhic ˘ ˘ two unstressed syllables. Verse in pyrrhics is pyrrhic
  "mm-hm" is a natural pyrrhic.
The following feet are found in Greek and Latin verse, but are much more rarely used to describe English prosody:
amphibrach ˘´˘ antispast ˘´´˘
bacchic ˘´´ choriamb ´˘´
cretic ´˘´ "first" epitrite ˘´´´
"second" epitrite ´˘´´ "third" epitrite ´´˘´ (etc.)
paeon ´˘˘˘ "second" paeon ˘´˘˘ (etc.)
ionic a majore ´´˘˘ ionic a minore ˘˘´´
mollossus ´´´ tribrach ˘˘˘