Systems of Scansion

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 syllable, and in English poetry, they are based on the different levels of stress placed on each syllable. In both cases, the meter 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 classical 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 ( ˘). A system for describing conventional rhythms by dividing lines into feet indicating the locations of accents and counting the syllables (marking the rhythm of the poem)

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). Gross & McDowell (1996:4)[1] criticize this form of notation as inappropriate notation that is often used to phrase poetry rather than scan it. ( ˘).

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

Ictus and breve

Fussell (1965/1979), Turco (1968/1986), and Williams (1986) all use the ictus for stressed syllables, and the classical breve for unstressed syllables. Corn (1997) describes this as a notation which evolved from the classical notation.

 ˘   /      ˘   /       ˘     /  ˘   /  ˘    /
But SOFT! What LIGHT through YONder WINdow BREAKS?
Symbol Syllable Type Description
/ Stressed Syllable carries the stress
˘ 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
˘ 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.[2]

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

Ictus and x

Baldwin (1979) regards the use of the ictus (or slash) and x notation as "normal,"[3] 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, Steele (1999), and some less specialist books.[4] This is the notation used in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.[5] This is the notation preferred by the Poetry WikiProject for World Heritage Encyclopedia articles displaying scansion.

 x   /      x   /       x     /  x   /  x    /
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

In developing a prosody for accentual verse, Robert Bridges[6] classifies the following types of syllable:

Symbol Syllable Type Description
Stressed Syllable carries the stress
Heavy Is genuinely long, slows down the reading. For example: broad, bright, down.
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.
Very Short Very short syllables, such as a syllable containing a short 'i'. Bridges' symbol is actually a shorter version of .
 ˘   ⋀     ˘    ⋀      –     ⋀  ˘   ⋀  ˘    ⋀
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). Hobsbaum (1996) describes and uses the system. Corn describes this system as "a little confusing to the eye"[7] and prefers to use a numerical system such as Jespersen's original four-stress system. Wallace (1996:30) asserts 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 the system from Trager & Smith (1951), for example, is "too much machinery ... to keep track of."[8]

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.[9] He used the numbers 1 to 4, to indicate varying degrees of stress: strong, half-strong, half-weak, and weak. Steele (1999) and McAuley (1966) both use this as a secondary style of notation. Chomsky and Halle (1968) (in a linguistic, not specifically metrical context) use a similar notation, but in reverse: "1" signifying primary stress, "2" signifying secondary, etc.; some linguistically oriented descriptions of meter published thereafter used this notation, with "1" being the strongest stress.

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

Corn (1997:30) 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

Attridge (1995:213) 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

In 1880, Sidney Lanier published The Science of English Verse, in which he developed a novel theory exploring the connections between musical notation and meter in poetry.

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)

Unicode characters

Unicode (as of version 4.1) provides characters for specifically for metrical notation, whereas previously there were just the two (more general-purpose) characters U+00AF ¯ macron and U+02D8 ˘ breve): [10]

Metrical Notation Characters in Unicode
Character Unicode Character Number Full Unicode Name
U+23D1 Metrical breve
U+23D2 Metrical long over short
U+23D3 Metrical short over long
U+23D4 Metrical long over two shorts
U+23D5 Metrical two shorts over long
U+23D6 Metrical two shorts joined
U+23D7 Metrical triseme
U+23D8 Metrical tetraseme
U+23D9 Metrical pentaseme



Further reading

  • Edward Bysshe, Rules for Making English Verse
  • Bastiaan Adriaan Pieter van Dam, Chapters on English Printing, Prosody, and Pronunciation
  • Alan Holder, Rethinking Meter
  • Tom Hood, A Practical Guide to English Versification
  • George Saintsbury, Manual of English Prosody
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