Let me introduce you

to Timothy Steele. His book, all the fun’s in how you say the thing was one of the first books on  prosody I ever read.   “Prosody is the study of the meter, rhythm, and intonation of a poem.”  I was taught how to scan (determine the metrical “character” of a line of poetry”) from friends I met on the internet in the “earlier” days of the bulletin board system.  There was one specifically who took the time to take me to a “black area” off a private bulletin board and run me through Alexander Pope, and spent the time to break down the confusion I suffered from too many badly taught English classes compounded by my very tin ear.

My approach to scansion is quite mechanical.  I have “friends” on the internet who are much more natural than I am in their approach to prosody.  Still, I have no reputation to uphold.  I make no scholarly claims.  The only claims I do make is that I occasionally attempt to write a good critique.  So, in the interest of sharing information from people who know much, much more than I dbroccoli braino, I’d like to introduce the interested student to Mr. Timothy Steele.  Wikipedia him.  Google him.  Poets.org him.  He’s an accessible instructor and there’s a lot of his technical information littering the web.  They’re well worth reading.

Here are two of his technical pieces:  one on rhyme and stanza and this piece on meter.  If you’re going to do some broccoli reading (reading which is good for your head), this stuff won’t put you to sleep.

I also ran across this old document, notes really, from my “early days” of trying to figure this stuff out:

Basics of accentual-syllabic prosody

Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms,

1st count all syllables
2nd count stressed syllables
3rd count verse feet


  1. Every word in English two syllables in length or longer will have one strongly stressed syllable.
  2. The general rule for stressing words of a single syllable is this: Verbs and nouns generally take a stress: action words, subjects, or objects.
  3. Exceptions:
    1. verbs that we generally elide: “Have” (I’ve), “are” (you’re), “am” (I’m)
    2. articles (a, the)
    3. prepositions (of, to, on, in, etc.)
    4. coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for)
    5. certain pronouns such as “I” and sometimes “you,” which we tend either to use in an elision or merely to slide over
  4. In any series of 3 unstressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through promotion and will be counted as a stressed syllable.
  5. In any series of 3 stressed syllables in a line of verse, one of them, generally the middle syllable, will take a secondary stress through demotion and will be counted as an unstressed syllable.
  6. Any syllable may be rhetorically stressed by means of italics or some other typographical ploy.


There are FOUR standard feet in English prosody:
(u = unstressed, / = stressed)

  • iamb – 2 syllables – u /
  • anapest – 3 syllables – u u /
  • trochee – 2 syllables – / u
  • dactyl – 3 syllables – / u u

minor feet:

  • headless iamb – foot of 1 stressed syllable (/)
  • tailless trochee – same

One can tell these two feet apart only from their position in a line of verse. They occur, for instance when the unstressed first syllable of an iamb is dropped in order to vary the rhythm of a line of verse, or when the unstressed 2nd syllable of a trochee is dropped for the same reason.

(For the most part, besides the double iamb, I have ignored the “minor” feet which have more than a single strong stress.  At that point, I resolve to one of the more common feet.)

  • spondee – 2 syllables – / /
  • amphibrach – 3 syllables – u / u
  • double iamb- 4 syllables – u u / / – equals 2 iambs in a line of verse. (Oliver, Rules, p. 27: There is something called the pyrrhic foot, which is composed of two light stresses. The pyrrhic foot appears in Greek and Roman poetry; in English verse it occurs only when immediately followed by a spondee, and the two feet together are called a double ionic.)
  • double trochee – 4 syllables – / / u u
  • amphimacer – 3 syllables – / u / – does not exist in English. It is either a headless iamb and an iamb, or a trochee and a tailless trochee.
  • antispast – 4 syllables – u / / u – iamb followed by a trochee
  • tribrach – 3 syllables – u u u – 3 unstressed syllables does not exist in English
  • molossus – 3 syllables – / / / – 3 stressed syllables does not exist in English
  • bacchic – 3 syllables – u / / – iamb & tailess trochee
  • antibacchius (antibacchic) – 3 syllables – / / u – headless iamb & a trochee
  • choriamb – 4 syllables – / u u / – trochee (choree) followed by iamb
  • paeon – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 stressed, 3 unstressed combinations:
    • / u u u
    • u / u u
    • u u / u
    • u u u /
  • epitrite – 4 syllables – in the following of 1 unstressed, 3 stressed combinations
    • / / / u
    • u / / /
    • / u / /
    • / / u /


Ashley Lister’s monthly exercise at the ERWA Blog is for limericks.  I, personally, suck at writing limericks because of the rhyme scheme, but not as bad as I suck at writing sestinas.  The sestina depends upon knowing the end before you start, imo.  But more on that form later.  Writing a limerick, to me, is like patting my head and rubbing my stomach simultaneously.  It’s a five line form with strict rhyming and rhythmic structures.  There is nothing sadder than a limerick which just goes “da dum da dum da dum da dum” instead of “da dum da da dum da da dum.” Both lines have 8 syllables, however the pattern of light stress, light stress, heavy stress in the first two lines is what gives the limerick its “bounce”.  The other line with 8 syllables, the four feet of iambs, is what makes the beginning for ballad meter.  It’s much more predictable, less bouncy, than the anapests.

Ashley keeps the form simple with a syllable count, but I’d have to add you need to pay attention to the stresses as well because 8 syllables could easily be a 4 foot iambic line instead of a 3 foot anapestic line.  Bob’s Byway has a more technical description of how a limerick is built and I’d strongly suggest because that extra foot makes for a “thump-ish” kind of feel, like a misstep to the piece.  Lewis Turco’s,  The Book of Forms,  adds to the details:


The limerick is a quantitative accentual-syllabic quintet turning on two rhymes: aabba.  Lines one, two, and five have an iamb and two anapests, in that order; lines three and four have either an iamb and an anapest , in that order, or two anapests.  Line five can be merely a modified repetition of line I (AabbA)…

(p.213, Third Ed.  University Press of New England)