Rail yard background, from the Library of Congress

Connections

A Hypertext Resource for Literature

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Stresses

From the start, we have a problem: the basic system of graphic scansion divides poetry into stressed and unstressed syllables, but the English language has more than two degrees of stress. Any responsible discussion of scansion must therefore leave some room for interpretation and disagreement. On the other hand, most English words and phrases do signal their stress patterns clearly. The word "happily," for instance, would sound very strange if someone pronounced a stress on the second or third syllable. The stress rather lies on the first, and we mark the word thus:


   /  u u

  happily

If you have trouble hearing the stresses of words, a reasonably effective crutch is to speak the words aloud with one hand gently cradling your chin. In general, stressed syllables cause more chin movement than unstressed syllables.

(Note that the typographical characters I use here exaggerate scansion marks a little: the mark for stress is a forward-leaning accent mark, and the mark of an unstressed syllable is more like the smile of a smiley-face than a typed "u.")

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