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Seventh grader Brooke from Pennsylvania writes: "Professor Puzzler, I finished your article about stressed and unstressed syllables, and it has helped me a lot! I’m in the process of writing my first sonnet and trying to juggle rhyme, iambic pentameter, and the structure of the sonnet is super difficult—especially since I still struggle with finding the stressed syllable. My main questions are: how do you know if single syllable words are stressed or unstressed? Is there anyway to check? Thank you!"
Hi Brooke, that's a great question. I'm so pleased to hear of students working to develop sonnets; the hard work you put in on such a daunting task will serve you well in your future poetry endeavors. What seems like a struggle and a juggle now will eventually become more and more natural to you. Eventually the meter will flow with much less conscious thought on your part.
But, in the meantime, I'll attempt to answer your question. There are certain words in the English language which are deemed "less important." I don't mean that we can get by without them; many sentences would be incomprehensible without them. But they are words that we often don't even consciously notice*. They are words like articles (a, an, the) prepositions (on, of, in, etc.), and conjunctions (and, but, or, that, which, etc.). Linking verbs (is, are, etc.) can be added to this list. These "lesser" words, if they have only one syllable, will typically will be unstressed in the context of a sentence. In contrast, one-syllable words which play a significant role in the sentence (such as nouns and non-linking verbs) will most likely be stressed in a poem.
One of my favorite example poems to look at is "The Night Before Christmas" -- consider the first line with unstressed syllables capitalized:
'twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas and ALL through the HOUSE
Notice those single-syllable words that are not stressed -- there are so many prepositions, articles, and conjunctions!
Now, I said that this is typically true, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule. Context plays a very key part in identifying the stressed syllables. Consider the following two sentences:
The CAR is ON the gaRAGE.
The CAR IS on the gaRAGE.
In the second sentence, the verb "is" has the stress, but in the first sentence, the preposition "on" is stressed. Why is that? Presumably in the first sentence, someone is startled because they didn't expect the car to be ON the garage (rather than IN it). But in the second sentence, it sounds as though someone has disagreed with them, so they are emphatically declaring the truth of the statement by emphasising the verb.
There's a bit of flexibility with these "lesser" words; the meaning you intend to convey can control whether they are stressed, but also, if you have two or three of them in a row, the natural rhythm of the sentence may dictate where the stress goes. Consider my rewrite of the first line of "The Night Before Christmas":
it WAS the NIGHT beFORE the YULEtide, AND all THROUGH the HOUSE
What have I done to this line? I've rewritten it so it has an iambic meter. Read that out loud, putting the emphasis on my upper-case syllables. Now compare my line to the actual anapestic line. I've included many of the same words, but the rhythm dictated that they be emphasized differently. "Before" gets one of its syllables stressed in my line, but not the other. In my line, "and" and "through" get the stress, while "all" does not, and this is exactly the opposite of the original line where "all" gets the stress, while "and" and "through" do not. Why do I get away with doing this? Because I'm not messing with the stress of "important" words like "night," "yuletide," and "house."
How do you tell what you can get away with? You read your line aloud, and listen to hear whether you are naturally emphasizing certain syllables or not. Then read it with the stress you'd like the syllables to have, and see if it sounds awkward.
Eventually you'll stop analyzing stresses syllable-by-syllable and go straight to listening to how it sounds.
* Book Scrounger notes that many of these "lesser" words are words which are not capitalized in headlines and titles. If you look at the title of this blog post, you'll notice that there is one uncapitalized word in the title. It's the conjunction "and." The exception to this is linking verbs, which are always capitalized in headlines and titles.