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A metre cheater

What is metre and how do you annotate metrical pattern? Associate Professor Caroline Webb explains this in relation to poetry.
Iambic pattern markings on paper
© The University of Newcastle, Australia

Metre (US spelling: meter) refers to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in rhythmically regular verse. (If you don’t know what a syllable is, look it up!)

To scan a poem is to work out the metrical pattern, by annotating it (marking it up) and deciding what type it is.

The formal way of annotating metre is to write a slash (/) over the top of a stressed syllable and a little cuphook (˘) over an unstressed syllable. The cuphook symbol (Unicode 02D8) doesn’t appear on most keyboards. When you’re practising scanning you can just capitalise the stressed syllables. In English verse, as in spoken English, the important syllable is the stressed one, but we still count the unstressed ones that go along with it in scanning a poem.

A stressed syllable and its companion unstressed syllable(s) together are called a foot. A foot may be a single word, or may be made up of two words or even parts of two words:

 ˘ /

˘ /

˘ / ˘ /

The pattern ˘ / (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one) is called an iamb (adjective: iambic).


Can you think of other poems or songs that use iambic metre?

© The University of Newcastle, Australia
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