Syllables and stress

Before understanding metre, you need to understand what syllables are, and what stressed syllables are in particular.

Any word of more than one syllable (a polysyllable) in English, has one of its syllables stressed rather than the other(s). Thus, the word ‘beauty' has its first syllable stressed rather than the second. We mark this with an acute accent, thus: beáu-ty. We can mark the unstressed syllable with a cross over it as well. If you are not sure which syllable is accented, then try pronouncing the word with different syllables accented, and see which sounds normal. You will soon discover that beau-tée (sounding like boutique) sounds distinctly odd. Some polysyllables, especially those made up of separate words, appear to have both syllables stressed just about equally, like ‘manhole' or even ‘mousehole'. Sometimes this is called shared stress. In very long words, there may be secondary stress: that is, another of the syllables has some stress to it, but not as much as the main syllable. Thus ‘beautifully' has four syllables, and ‘ful' could be said to have a little bit of stress. After all, the word ‘fully' would have a stress on the ‘ful'. We mark secondary stress with a grave accent: beáu-ti-fùl-ly.

When it comes to monosyllables, we have to decide by what part of speech they are, whether we give them a stress or not:

  • Sense bearing parts, like verbs, nouns, adjectives and many adverbs are prime candidates

  • Prepositions, conjunctions, articles and some adverbs and auxiliary verbs often don't carry much meaning - we could probably understand the sense even without them.

For example, you could probably gain the sense of a sentence that read: ‘rich kings brought gifts Christ child', whereas a sentence containing ‘and so the their to the' would be incomprehensible. All the monosyllables in the first sentence would be stressed; none in the second.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.