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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.

An anonymous reader asks, "How do you get good at 'listening' for iambic pentameters?"

Poetry, like music, has rhythm. In music, the rhythm is established using a few different intstruments. In a band, the drummer and the bass guitarist are the primary rhythm-holders. Those deep, bassy sounds like the guitar and the kick (bass) drum set our subwoofers to vibrating, and mimic our own heart rhythms.  In some music, the rhythm is prominently defined by the kick drum and the snare drum. A GEICO ad from awhile back made this point with a pig singing "Boots and pants and boots and pants and..."

The words "boots" and "pants" represent the kick drum*, and the word "and" represents the snare. The kick drum provides the primary driving beat, and the snare represents what we call the "off-beat".

So the pig is actually giving you the beat of a song.

You can feel the rhythm of that if you repeat it over and over, and if you do it just right, it's almost indistinguishable from a techno band.

The rhythm of a poem (in poetry, we call it the "meter" of the poem) can be understood in terms of kick drums and snares, which means it can also be understood in terms of phrases like "boots-and-pants-and". In poetry, we have stressed syllables and unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables correspond to the driving "kick" beat, and the unstressed syllables correspond to the off-beat of the snare. So what does iambic pentameter look like?


Notice that we start with the snare, or the off-beat, and we end with the kick. Also notice that we have 5 kick beats. This is why it's called penta-meter; "penta" is five and "meter" is rhythm, so pentameter is a five-rhythm.

The nice thing about having five kicks in a line is that you've got five fingers on one hand, so while you are saying "and boots and pants..." each time you say either "boots" or "pants" you can tap a finger on the table, and when you've tapped all five fingers, you've completed a line of the rhythm. So if you want to get good at listening for iambic pentameter, do this repeatedly. Say the "and-boots" pattern while tapping out the kick beat on your fingers. If you want, after you do the fifth finger, give a little pause, and then start all over again:

and-BOOTS-and-PANTS-and-BOOTS-and-PANTS-and-BOOTS [pause] and-BOOTS-and-PANTS-and-BOOTS-and-PANTS-and-BOOTS [pause] etc.

After awhile, that rhythm will get ingrained in you, and you'll be doing it without even thinking about it. Now let's take a look at something that's written in iambic pentameter:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heav'n
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice)

If you've got that "boots-and-pants" thing going through your mind, it'll be easier to see that this is iambic pentameter:

the QUAL i TY of MER cy IS not STRAIN'D
it DROPP eth AS the GEN tle RAIN from HEAV'N
u PON the PLACE be NEATH: it IS twice BLEST;
it BLESS eth HIM that GIVES and HIM that TAKES.

Can you feel the rhythm of it?

Important Disclaimers

  1. Thinking "and-boots-and-pants" may be a great way to recognize and understand the rhythm of poetry, but it is NOT a good way to read poetry; nobody wants to hear Shakespeare sounding like techno music**. Instead, you should use boots-and-pants to help you recognize where the beats are, but then once you've understood which syllables get the stress, you're going to read this in your normal reading voice, without giving unnecessary extra accent to any syllables.
  2. Also, even though when you practiced the rhythm, you left a pause between lines, you won't necessarily do that when reading a poem. Focus on the meaning of the lines; if a line does not complete a thought, you're not going to pause at the end of it. And if a thought is completed within a line, you're going to pause there. Remember that meaning is most important, and rhythm serves the poem, not the other way around! So with this in mind, the Shakespeare piece would be read like this:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd, [pause]
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heav'n upon the place beneath; [pause]
It is twice blest; [pause]
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Other Meters

The "boots-and-pants" idea can be used to recognize other meters as well. For example, if you want to get the feel for anapestic tetrameter, you should start thinking:


Notice that we've added the word "the" after the word "and" each time. This gives the meter a "triplet" feel. Also note that we only hit four driving beats in a line instead of five. So if you're counting this on your fingers, leave out your thumb.

You can see this rhythm in the well known Christmas poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas":

twas the NIGHT be fore CHRIST mas and ALL through the HOUSE
not a CREA ture was STIRR ing not E ven a MOUSE

* Technically, "boo" and "pan" represent the kick, and the "ts" represents the hi-hat. Thus, we really break it down like this: BOO-ts-and-PAN-ts-and.

** Well, okay, maybe "techno-shakespeare" should be a thing. But I'm not sure your poetry teacher will appreciate it! 

"Can you explain terza rima and give an example?" ~Anon, grade 5

Terza Rima is an Italian phrase that means "third rhyme." It's a specific way of rhyming lines in a poem. I think of it as sort of a revolving door of rhymes. In each stanza of a Terza Rima poem, there are two lines that rhyme, and one line that does not. The line that doesn't rhyme provides the rhyming syllable for the next stanza. Even though it doesn't rhyme with other lines in that stanza, it provides a connection to the next stanza, thus building the whole poem into a progressive, seamless whole.

In a Terza Rima poem, the last stanza often has two rhyming lines (that's called a couplet).

In other words, the rhyme scheme looks something like this:


If you wanted more than four stanzas, you could chain together as many stanzas as you want in this format.

If you have a hard time following that explanation, here's a silly poem I wrote just for you, that uses the Terza Rima rhyme scheme:

Candy Land

I dreamed the world was made of cookie dough.
The skies were filled with cotton candy clouds,
And from them blew a storm of whipped-cream snow.

The fields of chocolate, farmers left unplowed;
The stalks of candy-cane grew everywhere,
And gum-drops grew on bushes, low but proud.

Oh, nothing in this world seemed quite so fair
As pine tree branches bowed with sugar cones -
Enough for all the hungry crowds to share.

A whiff of spearmint on the wind was blown
O'er milk-shake streams and maple syrup lakes.
I shouted from atop my candied throne:

"This world of ours, it really takes the cake -
If it's a dream, I do not wish to wake!"

Copyright 2017 by Douglas Twitchell

If you study over the lines to see which ones rhyme, you'll notice that in the first stanza, dough and snow rhyme. The word clouds doesn't rhyme with anything in that stanza. However, it does rhyme with unplowed and proud in the next stanza. Similarly, everywhere in the second stanza doesn't rhyme with anything else in that stanza, but it does rhyme with fair and share in the next stanza. Finally, the concluding couplet takes lakes from the previous stanza and makes it the basis for the concluding rhyme.

Incidentally, Robert Frost wrote a terza rima sonnet titled "Acquainted with the Night." In addition, his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is not Terza Rima, but it's a very similar "chained" rhyme; each stanza has four lines. The third line doesn't rhyme with the others, but it does introduce the rhyme for the next stanza. The rhyme scheme looks like this:


Lately I've been getting a spate of questions about meter in poetry. These question range from "Is this poem iambic pentameter?" to "How do you tell if a syllable is stressed or not?"

Let's start with the second question: How do you tell if a syllable is stressed or not?

If it's trembling uncontrollably, or hiding under the blankets, it's probably a stressed syllable.

Okay, serious answer. A stressed syllable is a syllable that has emphasis within a word (or within a line of poetry). So the best way to tell is to say the word in an overly dramatic way, choosing different syllables to emphasize. For example, let's say we have the word "emphasize," and we want to figure out which syllable is stressed. So we try saying it a few different ways. Try reading the following line, and SHOUT whenever you see a capitalized syllable (or, if you're in a library, whisper when you see a lower-case syllable).

EM-pha-size, em-PHA-size, em-pha-SIZE.

Clearly the middle one sounds WRONG! So we know that the middle syllable is unstressed. But the first and last ones, neither of them sounds horrible, but EM-pha-size definitely sounds better than em-pha-SIZE. EM is the stressed syllable in the word, and the other two are unstressed.  You could argue that SIZE has a secondary stress, but the general rule is, only one syllable in a word has the primary stress.

When I was a little kid I could never say the word "aluminum" properly. Let's see if we can work it out by syllables. Get ready to SHOUT again!

A-lu-min-um, a-LU-min-um, a-lu-MIN-um, a-lu-min-UM.

Clearly the one that sounds correct is the second one. Thus, LU is the stressed syllable.

The interesting thing is that if you put multiple words together, we may start hearing some of those "secondary" stresses more clearly:

EM-pha-SIZE a-LU-min-UM.

Those two words sound really great together, because we hear it as alternating stressed and unstressed all the way through. If we switch the order, though, it doesn't sound right to say it that way:

a-LU-min-UM EM-pha-SIZE.

Somehow, those two stressed syllables next to each other sound awkward and cumbersome. However, if we let the UM and SIZE get "swallowed up" and treat them as unstressed syllables:

a-LU-min-um EM-pha-size.

Now it sounds more relaxed and natural. Read this way, the two words sound natural together, because we have a stress every three syllables. It's important to remember that the context of words affects how they are stressed.

Another example of stress being affected by context is the word "present." This word will be pronounced pre-SENT if it is a verb, but PRE-sent if it is a noun. So you always have to think about the meanings of words to determine how they should be read.

So how do you tell if a poem is in a particular meter? Well, to answer that, you need to know what the meters are. For example, anapestic tetrameter means that you have two syllables unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable, and that is repeated four times in a line of poetry. So, for example, if you wanted to know if Robert Frost's "The Road not Taken" is anapestic, you could write it out with the stress on every third syllable:

two roads DI-verged in A yel-low WOOD.

Okay, that sounds just plain silly. I'd say Frost's poem is not anapestic.

What about "The Night Before Christmas"?

'twas the NIGHT be-fore CHRIST-mas and ALL through the HOUSE.

Hey! That sounds nice! That's the way it's supposed to be read! So yes, that is an anapestic poem.

Then there's iambic poetry. A poem is iambic if you start with an unstressed syllable, and then alternate stressed and unstressed. So let's try Shakespeare's famous line "It is the star to every wandering bark." We'll try writing that out with alternating stress:

it IS the STAR to EV-ery WAN-der-ING bark.

Uh oh...that doesn't sound quite right. It worked well until we got to the word "wandering." Then things went screwy. But you know, lots of times, when we say wandering, we don't actually pronounce that middle syllable; we say "wandring." So let's try it that way:

it IS the STAR to EV-ery WAN-dring BARK. it sounds good! So yes, that line from Shakespeare's sonnet 116 is iambic.
Sometimes poets take a little bit of liberty with their rhythm, because they have practiced enough that they have a really good sense for what they can get away with. Let's go back to Robert Frost's poem, and try to put that in iambic form:
Two ROADS di-VERGED in A yel-LOW wood.

Again, this starts out sounding right, but about the time we get to the word "A," it goes south on us. Who wants to emphasize the word "a" in a poem? Well, that's the thing; Robert Frost knew that if people read his poem naturally, without thinking about meter, the words "in" and "a" would both kind of get swallowed up - almost as though they were one syllable:

Two ROADS di-VERGED (in a) YEL-low WOOD.
And now it works. So yes, this poem is iambic. Each line of the first stanza has little "glitches" in the meter, but if you read it naturally, without paying attention to the meter, it sounds nice:

Two ROADS di-VERGED (in a) YEL-low WOOD,
and SOR-(ry i) COULD not TRAV-el BOTH
and BE one TRAV'ler, LONG i STOOD
and LOOKED down ONE as FAR (as i) COULD
To WHERE it BENT (in the) UN-der-GROWTH.

Okay, now stop yelling, and go read that stanza in your natural voice. Isn't it beautiful? That's poetry for you!

Related post: How does context affect stress of syllables?

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