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Systems of scansion

Systems of scansion

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A system of scansion is a way to mark the metrical patterns of a line of poetry. In classical poetry, these patterns are based on the different lengths of each vowel sound, and in English poetry, they are based on the different stresses placed on each syllable. In both cases, the metre often has a regular foot. Over the years, many different systems have been established to mark the scansion of a poem.


Classical scansion — macron and breve

The original marks for scansion came from the quantitative meter of classical prosody where long syllables were marked with a macron( ¯), and short syllables were marked with a breve ( ˘).

Symbol Syllable Type Description
 ¯ Long Syllable has a long duration
 ˘ Short Syllable has a short duration

Classical system adopted to English — macron and breve

In the accentual prosody of English verse, these marks are still sometimes used to represent stressed and unstressed syllables. However, this robs them of their still potentially useful role in marking quantity (that is, the duration of syllables). Harvey Gross criticizes Herbert Grierson for his use of this 'inappropriate' notation.Template:Ref ( ˘).

 ˘   ¯      ˘   ¯       ˘     ¯  ˘   ¯  ˘    ¯
<tt>But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
Symbol Syllable Type Description
Stressed Syllable carries the stress
Template:Unicode Unstressed Syllable is not stressed

Ictus and breve

FussellTemplate:Ref, TurcoTemplate:Ref, and WilliamsTemplate:Ref all use the ictus for stressed syllables, and the classical breve for unstressed syllables. CornTemplate:Ref describes this as a notation which evolved from the classical notation.

 ˘   /      ˘   /       ˘     /  ˘   /  ˘    /
<tt>But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
Symbol Syllable Type Description
/ Stressed Syllable carries the stress
Template:Unicode Unstressed Syllable is not stressed

Corn goes on to state that the most common approach adopted for marking fine gradations of stress has been to add the symbol \ for 'intermediate stress'.

Symbol Syllable Type Description
/ Stressed Syllable carries strong stress
\ Intermediate stress Stress on syllable is between strong and weak
Template:Unicode Unstressed Syllable is not stressed; that is, weak.

Turco's version of this is to use a dot (·) to indicate the middle syllable in a string of three unstressed syllables has been 'promoted' to a secondary or weaker stress.Template:Ref

Symbol Syllable Type Description
/ Stressed Syllable carries strong stress
· Secondary stress A weak syllable 'promoted' to secondary stress.
Template:Unicode Unstressed Syllable is not stressed; that is, weak.

Ictus and x

BaldwinTemplate:Ref regards the use of the ictus (or slash) and x notation as 'normal', and argues for its benefits. By avoiding the macron and breve traditionally associated with the quantity (length) of syllables, ictus and x notation avoids possible confusions; it also has the advantage of being easily typed. This notation is used by, for example, SteeleTemplate:Ref, and some less specialist booksTemplate:Ref. This is the notation used in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.Template:Ref It carries the significant disadvantage of its counter-intuitive use of an x to mark an absence of stress (given that x 'marks the spot' in common usage and draws the eye more readily than the ictus).

 x   /      x   /       x     /  x   /  x    /
<tt>But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
Symbol Syllable Type Description
/ Stressed Syllable carries the stress
x Unstressed Syllable is not stressed

Robert Bridges' accentual prosody

Main articles: Bridges' Prosody of Accentual Verse, and [[{{{2}}}]], and [[{{{3}}}]], and [[{{{4}}}]], and [[{{{5}}}]]

In developing a prosody for accentual verse, Robert BridgesTemplate:Ref classifies the following types of syllable:

Symbol Syllable Type Description
Template:Unicode Stressed Syllable carries the stress
Heavy Is genuinely long, slows down the reading. For example: broad, bright, down.
Template:Unicode Light All syllables with short vowels, even those that would be long 'by position' in Classical terms. That is, if the consonants around a short vowel do not genuinely retard the syllable then it will be counted 'light'. Light also includes all classically short syllables. For example the second syllables of 'brighter' and 'brightest' are both light, despite the consonants in the latter.
Template:Unicode Very Short Very short syllables, such as a syllable containing a short 'i'. Bridges' symbol is actually a shorter version of Template:Unicode.

 ˘   ⋀     ˘    ⋀      ˘     ⋀  ˘   ⋀  ˘    ⋀
<tt>But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?

Trager-Smith notation

The linguists George Trager and Henry Lee Smith described a four-stress system in their An Outline of English Structure, (1951). HobsbaumTemplate:Ref describes and uses the system. Corn describes this system as "a little confusing to the eye"Template:Ref and prefers to use a numerical system such as Jespersen's original four-stress system (see below). Robert Wallace (poet), in his controversial 1993 essay 'Meter in English,' asserted that "We should never use four degrees of speech stress for scanning." His objections include that any four-stress system abolishes the spondee, and that Trager-Smith, for example, is "too much machinery ... to keep track of".Template:Ref

Symbol Syllable Type Description
/ Primary Stress Heavy stress
Secondary Stress Medium Stress
\ Tertiary Stress Medium-Light
Weak Light syllable

Jespersen's system

In 1900, Otto Jespersen in his "Notes on Metre" was the first to use a four-stress system.Template:Ref. He used the numbers 1 to 4, to indicate varying degrees of stress: strong, half-strong, half-weak, and weak.

Symbol Syllable Type Description
4 Strong Heavy stress
3 Half-Strong Medium Stress
2 Half-Weak Medium-Light Syllable
1 Weak Light syllable

Corn's three-stress numerical system

CornTemplate:Ref uses a simple numerical notation, much like Jespersen, with 1 representing the weakest syllable, and 3 indicating the heaviest stress. He argues that in Jespersen's system the half-strong and the half-weak are the hardest to distinguish, and should be merged.

Symbol Syllable Type Description
3 Strong Strong Stress
2 Medium Either half-strong or half-weak
1 Weak Light syllable; unstressed.

Attridge's single-line scansion

AttridgeTemplate:Ref defines a fairly complicated and descriptive notation:

Symbol Syllable type Description
/ Stressed syllable In metrical verse this is used for a stressed syllable not functioning as a beat (i.e. 'demoted')
\ Syllable with secondary stress Secondary or subordinate stress. In metrical verse this is used for such a syllable that is not functioning as a beat (i.e. 'demoted')
/ Stressed beat Stressed syllable functioning as a Beat
\ Secondary stress beat Syllable with secondary or subordinate stress which is functioning as a beat
x Unstressed syllable An unstressed syllable. In metrical verse this is used for such a syllable that is functioning as an offbeat or as part of an offbeat
x Unstressed beat An unstressed Syllable functioning as a Beat (i.e. promoted)
- Elided syllable
[/] Virtual beat
[x] Virtual offbeat
Primary beat in quadruple verse The symbol is a slash with double underlining.
a/ Stress with alliteration Used in Alliterative verse
| Division Division between phrases or stress groups
R Rising stress group
F Falling stress group
M Mixed or monosyllabic stress group
ANT Anticipation Phrase of anticipation
ARR Arrival Phrase of arrival
STA Statement Phrase of statement
EXT Extension Phrase of extension
> Continuation Continuation of phrase over line juncture

Lanier's musical notation

This has not always been viewed kindly. For example Vladimir Nabokov in his Notes on Prosody says: "In my casual perusals, I have of course slammed shut without further ado any such works on English prosody in which I glimpsed a crop of musical notes." (pages 3–4)



  1. Template:Note see Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, ISBN 0-472-06517-3. page 4. Gross is referring to Grierson's Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century Oxford University Press, 1921. ISBN 0-19-881102-0. page xxiv.
  2. Template:Note see Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, McGraw Hill, 1965, revised 1979. ISBN 0-07-553606-4.
  3. Template:Note see Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics ISBN 0-87451-380-4 and ISBN 0-87451-381-2 (paperback), original 1968, expanded version 1986.
  4. Template:Note see Miller Williams, Patterns of Poetry, Louisiana State University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8071-1253-4. ISBN 0-8071-1330-1 (paperback).
  5. Template:Note see Turco, op. cit. page 15.
  6. Template:Note Alfred Corn, The Poem's Heartbeat, ISBN 1-885266-40-5, Story Line Press, 1997. page 27.
  7. Template:Note "English feet concern themselves with stressed and unstressed syllables, normally notated / and ×. The snag is that some continental measures, including a number of forms that have found their way into English, are concerned with long and short syllables, generally notated – and ⌣. " — page 79, Michael Baldwin, The Way to Write Poetry, Elm Tree Books / Hamish Hamilton, 1982. ISBN 0-241-10749-0.
  8. Template:Note see Timothy Steele, All the fun's in how you say a thing, Ohio University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8214-1260-4.
  9. Template:Note see for example, Peter Makin (editor) Basil Bunting on Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8018-6166-7. See page 199.
  10. Template:Note see for example the article on 'Iamb' (page 360), Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Enlarged Edition, Macmillan, 1965, enlarged 1974. ISBN 0-333-18122-0 (paperback).
  11. Template:Note see Robert Bridges, Milton's Prosody, with a chapter on Accentual Verse and Notes
  12. Template:Note see Philip Hobsbaum, Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0-415-08797-X.
  13. Template:Note see Corn, op. cit. page 29.
  14. Template:Note Wallace's essay is reprinted in David Baker (editor), Meter in English, A Critical Engagement, University of Arkansas Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55728-444-X. See page 34 for comments on Trager Smith.
  15. Template:Note see Wallace's essay in Baker, op. cit. page 30.
  16. Template:Note see Corn, op. cit. page 30.
  17. Template:Note see Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-521-42369-4. Appendix I, page 213

Other references

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