Ballads are the narrative form of a folk song that tells a story. The ballad stanza consists of a quatrain of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines, usually with rhyme of the second and fourth lines.

Bracketing Mismatch

A bracketing mismatch occurs when the bracketing of the particular verse instance violates, at the first level of tree structure, the boundaries of the metrical foot pattern shown below the line.


A caesura is a pause, normally signaled by a strong syntactic break, e. g., a phrase break, often underscored by punctuation such as a comma, semi-colon or a period. It usually occurs somewhere other than the end of the line, usually the middle.


"is a sequence of two phrases or clauses which are parallel in syntax, but with a reversal in the order of the corresponding words" (Abrams 162).

Common Meter

Common meter is used for many hymns, ballads and nursery rhymes and consists of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines.

Compound Words

Compound words are polysyllabic words made up of two individual words joined together. In analyzing their stress patterns, the individual word boundaries are maintained; the strongest stress will appear as far forward in the compound word as possible, e.g., "labor union" has its strongest stress on "la-."


Elision makes two syllables occupy a single metrical position. Normally elision happens "where there is an unstressed vowel before a consonant or where one syllable ends with a vowel and the next begins with one ('the other')" (Poetry in English 1166). See Example 20.

End Stopped

A line is end stopped when the syntax and rhythm coincide at its conclusion. Very often such lines will also have punctuation to further signal the closure of the line. These lines contrast with an enjambed or run-on line.


A line is enjambed when the line end is not coincident with the syntax and the thought runs over into the next line. Many enjambed lines do not have punctuation at the end, though punctuation does not alone determine whether a line is enjambed. A medial caesura often precedes enjambment as in Example 22.

Generative Linguistics

Generative linguistics, begun by Noam Chomsky, is an attempt to create a grammar that defines "the set of grammatical sentences in a language" (David Crystal, A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985) 135)). By constructing the set of rules that underly any actual performance of speech, the linguist is able to account for those utterances which could and could not be uttered, i.e., are grammatical or ungrammatical. Similarly, the generative metrist attempts to write the rules which specify what sequences of poetic language are metrical or unmetrical. For an overview of generative metrics, see Attridge, REP 34-55 or, for a much more detailed treatment, see the articles by Kiparsky or Liberman.

Initial Inversion

In iambic pentameter, initial inversion refers to a reversal of the first two syllables so that the line begins, s w, rather than w s. This deviation is very common and usually does not create a high degree of complexity in a line since the iambic pattern is almost always immediately re-established. See Attridge, REP 188 ff for further discussion.


Isochrony refers to the idea that English has a strong tendency towards being a stress-timed language, i.e., that beats fall at roughly equal intervals and that we speed up or slow down the syllables between beats to make the beats equally spaced. There has been debate whether this isochrony is objective or a matter of perception but certainly the perception of English as isochronous is undeniable.

Labeling Mismatch

A labeling mismatch occurs when an s in the stress pattern of a line occurs in a w position of the metrical pattern or a w in the stress pattern occurs in an s position of the abstract metrical norm.

Lexical Stress

Lexical stress refers to the stress in a polysyllabic word. The term is used to specify that in assigning stress in a sequence of syllables, word boundaries must always be maintained. For instance, see Example 5.


Meter is the organization of beats into regular patterns (Attridge, BM 11). Conventionally, meters have been named after the regularly recurring pattern units or feet, as they are usually called. The meter is further named after the number of these feet per line. So the iambic pentameter consists of five feet of the pattern, w s (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable). The most common feet are:

  • iambic (w s)
  • trochaic (s w)
  • pyrrhic (w w)
  • spondaic (s s)
  • anapestic (w w s)
  • dactyllic (s w w)

The types of line lengths are numerically named: monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter or alexandrine, heptameter, octometer (Attridge, REP 6).

Nuclear Stress Rule

The Nuclear Stress Rule specifies that the strongest stress in a phrase will fall as far back, i. e., as close to the end as possible. See Liberman, "On Stress and Linguistic Rhythm" 269, 257 and Kiparsky, "Stress, Syntax, and Meter" 579, 581).

Phonological Phrase

A phonological phrase is any syntactically determined phrase structure, e.g., a noun, verb or prepositional phrase. These phrases mark the "locations of optional or obligatory intonation breaks, corresponding to caesuras in verse" (Kiparsky, "Stress, Syntax, and Meter" 579, 581).


Prosody has to do with the prominence and non-prominence of linguistic features such as stress, syllabification, quantity, phrasing and intonation. It is the grammar of rhythm. See Cureton, DM 3-4 for more.


A quatrain is a four line stanza.


Rhythm is "a global term covering all relations of strength and weakness" (Attridge, BM 11).

Rhythm Rule

The Rhythm Rule specifies that the stress on a word will be retracted (i.e., moved forward) in order to avoid consecutively stressed syllables. For instance, words like "thirteen" or "Tennessee" will have their strongest stress moved from their last to their first syllables when they are joined to subsequent words beginning with a stressed syllable, e.g., Tennessee walking horse. This rule reflects the tendency in English towards alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. For more, see Kiparsky, "The Rhythmic Structure of English Verse" 218 ff.


"The scansion of a line provides a graphic representation of the relationship between the metrical pattern and the stress pattern; that is, it shows which metrical rules are employed at particular points to realize beats and offbeats. It therefore directly reflects the way in which the line is perceived as rhythmically regular, indicating the degree and exact nature of metrical deviation at every stage" (Attridge, REP 361). Attridge here refers to his own beat-offbeat system but all forms of scansion use some sort of graphic representation to represent stress; the generative system uses trees and traditional scansion uses the long and short stress marks of classical meters.


Stress is the prominence given to certain syllables in a sequence. Within a sequence, stress is both relative and hierarchical.


A line is unmetrical, in generative terms, when an s in the verse instance occurs in a metrical w position simultaneously with a bracketing mismatch. See Example 26.

Verse Instance

Verse instance refers to an actual line of poetry as opposed to the abstract metrical pattern.


Versification "deals with those conventionalized language patterns that develop in specific cultural traditions in order to enable (and constrain) poetic composition" (Cureton, DM 4).

Word Rule

The Word Rule explains how to build up the tree structures for words with more than one stress. Liberman states the Word Rule as follows: "In a pair of sister nodes N1 N2, N2 is s if and only if it branches" (Liberman, "On Stress and Linguistic Rhythm" 268). See Example 6.