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Metrical Feet and the Iamb

Reference > Literature > Poetry > The Bard

We've already learned about syllables and stress, so now it's time to put those ideas together and talk about some metrical feet.

What's a metrical foot? Well, a metrical foot is the fundamental rhythm of your poem; it's what moves your poem along in a nice, flowing style. Think of it this way: when you're walking, your own feet patter along in a nice rhythm; you don't even think about the fact that your feet are plopping down onto the ground in a very consistent, rhythmic way. Thump, thump, thump...

But suppose you sprained your ankle, and were just dragging one foot along: Thump, drag, OUCH, thump, pause, drag, OUCH, MOAN...

All of a sudden you'll notice what your feet are doing, and you'll notice that your rhythm is off.

That's the way it is with metrical feet. If your poem has a nice rhythm to it, most people won't even think about the rhythm. But the moment your rhythm is off, everyone says, "There's something wrong here..."

We'll talk about a few different metrical feet, but in this article we'll focus on just one metrical foot: theiamb.

The Iamb

In Greek mythology, there was a minor goddess whose name was Iambe. I bet you can't guess what she was the goddess of? Yes, that's right: poetry!

You don't need to know that in order to write poetry - it's just a fun bit of trivia. Here's what you do need to know:

An iamb is a combination of two syllables, in which the first syllable is unstressed, and the second syllable is stressed.

Here are some examples of iambs:

  • about - a BOUT
  • become - be COME
  • restore - re STORE
  • confirm - con FIRM

These are all words that start with an unstressed syllable, and are followed by a stressed syllable. Here's something to try: read all four of these words, one after the other, several times: "about become restore confirm, about become restore confirm, about become restore confirm."

Of course, the words don't make sense put together like that, but don't you feel what a nice rhythm those four words have together? It's because they all are the same metrical foot.

Combining Words

Sometimes pairs of words can be combined to make iambs:

  • a cow - a COW
  • the dog - the DOG
  • his horse - his HORSE

If you read those one after another, you can hear that nice flowing rhythm. Now, just for kicks, replace the word "horse" with the word "piglet". See how the rhythm all of a sudden gets clumsy, like someone with a sprained ankle?

Longer Words

Some words are made up of two iambs:

  • inherently - in HER ent LY
  • preposterous - pre POST er OUS

Try saying those two words together: "inherently preposterous, inherently preposterous, inherently preposterous..." Can you hear that they have the same smooth rhythm as "about become restore confirm?"

And some words that are NOT iambic can be put together to form iambs. For example, neither the word "inherent" (in HER ent) nor the word "silliness" (SILL i NESS) are iambic. Why not? Because "inherent" would need another stressed syllable at the end, and "silliness" would need another unstressed syllable at the beginning.

But watch what happens when you put them together: "inherent silliness, inherent silliness, inherent silliness..." Can you hear that nice iambic rhythm? The syllable "SILL" in "silliness" is the stressed syllable that "inherent" needed to finish out an iamb, so they work perfectly together!


Where does the word "iamb" come from?
How many syllables does it take to make an iamb?
Is the word "historical" made up of iambs? Write it as a series of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Is the word "alphabetic" made up of iambs? Write it as a series of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Can you think of two words that aren't iambic, but when you put them together, they form an iambic phrase?
Challenge: Can you write an entire sentence that is completely iambic?
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