How to Mark Accented Syllables in Poetry

Accented syllables are pronounced slightly louder and with a higher pitch than unaccented syllables. In English formal poetry, poets arrange lines in patterns of accented and unaccented syllables called metrical feet. When a writer wants to analyze a poem's meter, he uses a formal system of marking accented and unaccented syllables called scansion. By learning how to recognize and mark the accented syllables in a line of verse, you will be better able to express your impressions of the "music" of poetry.

Step 1

Copy the first line of the poem you want to scan on a piece of paper and read it aloud. Rewrite the line bellow the original, breaking it up into its component syllables. If you are unsure where to break up syllables, check the pronunciation key of the word's definition in the dictionary, which usually is given just after the word and before the definition proper.

Step 2

Read the line out loud again in order to determine which syllables are accented. The accented syllables are those that receive more stress, whether naturally or for rhetorical emphasis. If you are unsure of a word's accents, try holding your hand to your neck while you read the line aloud. When you say an accented syllable, you should feel a tiny vibration in your voice box. You can also check the dictionary pronunciation key, where accented syllables are usually marked with an apostrophe before them.

Step 3

Mark the accented syllables of the line with a forward slash mark ( / ) above the syllable, which in the context of scansion is called an ictus. If you checked the dictionary pronunciations of the words, you may have found some words with a lowered, apostrophe-like mark, which indicates a "secondary" stress. These are not quite unstressed, but still don't receive as much emphasis as a normal accent. In some scansion systems, they are marked with a backslash. You can mark secondary stresses if you prefer, but you can also leave them as regular accents if you want to keep things simple.

Step 4

Mark the unaccented syllables with a small upward curved line called a breve. If you want to complete your scansion, divide the syllables into metrical feet and mark them off with straight vertical lines. In English, the most common metrical feet are the iamb (breve, ictus), the trochee (ictus, breve), the dactyl (ictus, breve, breve), and the anapest (breve, breve, ictus).

Things You'll Need

  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Dictionary
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