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Scansion ie Metrical Scanning

by Suzette Richards


Scansion: n. Metrical scanning; way a verse* scans

*verse (a literary device) Definition: The literary term ‘verse’ is used to refer to a single line of poetry composition. A metrical writing line is known as verse. The word can however, also refer to a stanza or any other part of the poetry.


APRIL 1994 

To right a wrong of ages past

A nation writhed in pain

A cross is what it now would take

So much for all to gain


Some errors could not be atoned

Abuse will reap its toll

‘Abolish’ we’d striven to meet

A mark on voters roll


All business came to halt for days

A joyous spirit found

Some buses rolling into town

Big smiles were all around


In queues, we stood in pouring rain

A hopeful crowd at best

Awaiting turns at poll to vote

Most eager like the rest



Let’s consider a line of poetry and break it down into syllables, and show the syllables with stress. From my poem, April 1994:


In queues, we stood in pouring rain


There’s only one word in this line with more than one syllable, namely the word pouring = pour + ing; and it has, therefore, got two syllables in the word. If you look up queue meaning ‘line’ in a dictionary, it will give the phonetic (kju:"), (a homophonic rhyme with ‘cue’) – it has only one syllable, even in the plural. Similarly, if you look at the line: ‘All business came to halt for days’, you would be forgiven if you thought at a glance that I had made an error identifying the word business as having only two (and not three syllables). This is because one does not pronounce the ‘i’ in ‘business’ and it, therefore, has only two syllables.

NB Some words retain the same syllable count in plural and/or past tense; others don’t. A rule of thumb is that if it is not distinctly pronounced, it is not counted as an extra syllable. Examples: queue [1]/queues [1]; boil [1]/boiled [1]; defend [2]/defended [3]; it’s, can’t, and don’t (all 1 syllable each), but, wouldn’t [2] (pronounced ‘wood-nt’).

Where you need to adjust the syllable count or grammar, you may use an apostrophe to take the place of the discarded consonant and/or vowel. For example, in my sonnet, Pearls of Wisdom, I applied this technique (dropping the ‘-ed’) to make allowance for the rhyme scheme: ‘To hardship, we had become accustom’.’ In the poem, April 1994, I used the apostrophe to adjust the syllable count per line:


‘Abolish’ we’d striven to meet.

we’d (1 syllable); instead of ‘we had’, which would have resulted in a two syllable count.



The biggest issue poets seem to have is to determine which single syllabic words are stressed and which are unstressed. The following rules are a general guide, but there can be exceptions.

1. Content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) are stressed, eg earth, time, ball, see, seen, loud, soft, fast, slow, etc.

2. Structure words (pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions) are unstressed, eg I, he, she, it, we, of, at, the, and, etc.

3. Auxiliary verbs are unstressed. The primary auxiliary verbs in English are: be, do, and have. The modal auxiliaries are can, could;  may, might; must; shall, should; will, would.

Negative auxiliary verbs (don’t, can’t, weren’t, mustn’t) ARE stressed.


Useful link: (Pronunciation and sentence stress rules sections)



Metrical scanning

Hyphenate all the syllables in multi-syllable words. Let us consider another example from  my poem, April 1994:


a joyous spirit found


1. Here we have two words that contain more than one syllable: joyous and spirit.

Hyphenated: joy-ous; spir-it

2. Capitalise the stressed syllables in all multi-syllable words and say it out loud. You should hear the first syllable stressed.  (For this exercise, the first word in the sentence has not been capitalised in order to avoid confusion.)

a JOY-ous SPIR-it found

3. For single syllable words, capitalise all nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.


See the pattern? An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one.

ta DUM; ta DUM;  ta DUM ; ta DUM 

This pattern is called ‘iamb’. A unit of a particular pattern is called a ‘foot’.

4. Remove the hyphens and put vertical bars around each foot.

a JOY|ous SPIR|it FOUND|

5. Count the feet (metrical units) between the vertical bars.

There are 3 iambic feet here, so a line like this is called an iambic trimeter: */|*/|*/|


See general rules for identifying the syllable breaks in multi-syllable words at the end of this chapter.


If you wish to write in iamb metre, verify that it is iambic by making scansion like the one above. If your line is not iambic, you will have to change something to make it so. Sometimes, you can move words around. Sometimes you need a new word or words, inflected differently. Look up your problem word in a thesaurus to see a list of synonyms.



The rules above are for what is called ‘neutral’ or normal stress. But sometimes we can stress a word that would normally be only a structure word, for example to correct information. Look at the following dialogue:


‘They've been to Mongolia, haven't they?’

‘No, THEY haven't, but WE have.’


Note also that when ‘be’ is used as a main verb, it is usually unstressed—even though as a main verb it is also a content word.


If you are writing regular iamb metre, your line will always start with an unstressed syllable and end with a stressed syllable. Other metrical feet may differ, for example, start with a stressed syllable. This will be discussed under the following chapter dealing with Glossary of Literary Terms, as well as under the various poetry forms and elaborated upon in these volumes.

Also, see the chapters on alliteration and limerick for more examples of metre in poetry.



1. Separate prefixes (un-; pre-; etc) and suffixes (certain past tense, plural, gerund:    ‘-ing’, etc.) from the root words.  Please note that certain plural and past tense do not affect the syllable counts.

2. Divide two consonants which are next to none another (at the 1st and 2nd, if more than one consonant following one another), for example:

er-rors; but not ‘rolling’ (roll-ing) as it falls under rule no 1.

3. Divide words with long sounding vowels BEFORE the consonant, for example:

a-ges, vo-ters, etc.

4. Divide words with short sounding vowels AFTER the consonant, for example:

ab-use, striv-en, etc

5. Words ending with ‘-ckle’: Divide right BEFORE the ‘-le’, for example:

fick-le, trick-le, etc.

6. Words ending with ‘-le’ (but not  ‘-ckle’): Divide the word BEFORE the preceding consonant, for example:

am-ple, stum-ble, etc.