AskDefine | Define scansion

Dictionary Definition

scansion n : analysis of verse into metrical patterns

User Contributed Dictionary



From the Late Latin scanscionem, from Latin scansio "the act of climbing", from scandere "to climb".


  1. The rhythm or meter of a line or verse.
  2. The act of analysing the meter of poetry.

Related terms


the rhythm or meter of a line or verse
the act of analysing the meter of poetry

Extensive Definition

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 vowel sound, and in English poetry, they are based on the different stresses placed on each syllable. In both cases, the metre 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 original 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 ( ˘).

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). Harvey Gross criticizes Herbert Grierson for his use of this 'inappropriate' notation.ref grossAndGrierson ( ˘).

Ictus and breve

Fussellref fussell, Turcoref turco, and Williamsref williams all use the ictus for stressed syllables, and the classical breve for unstressed syllables. Cornref corn describes this as a notation which evolved from the classical notation. 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'.
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.

Ictus and x

Baldwinref baldwin regards the use of the ictus (or slash) and x notation as 'normal', 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, Steeleref steele, and some less specialist booksref otherIctusAndX. This is the notation used in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.ref princeton It carries the significant disadvantage of its counter-intuitive use of an x to mark an absence of stress (given that x 'marks the spot' in common usage and draws the eye more readily than the ictus).

Robert Bridges' accentual prosody

In developing a prosody for accentual verse, Robert Bridgesref bridges classifies the following types of syllable:

Trager-Smith notation

The linguists George Trager and Henry Lee Smith described a four-stress system in their An Outline of English Structure, (1951). Hobsbaumref hobsbaum describes and uses the system. Corn describes this system as "a little confusing to the eye" and prefers to use a numerical system such as Jespersen's original four-stress system (see below). Robert Wallace (poet), in his controversial 1993 essay 'Meter in English,' asserted 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 Trager-Smith, for example, is "too much machinery ... to keep track of".

Jespersen's system

In 1900, Otto Jespersen in his "Notes on Metre" was the first to use a four-stress system.ref jespersen. He used the numbers 1 to 4, to indicate varying degrees of stress: strong, half-strong, half-weak, and weak.

Corn's three-stress numerical system

Cornref cornAgain 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.

Attridge's single-line scansion

Attridgeref attridgeSingle defines a fairly complicated and descriptive notation:

Lanier's musical notation

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)


  1. note grossAndGrierson see Harvey Gross and Robert McDowell, Sound and Form in Modern Poetry, ISBN 0-472-06517-3. page 4. Gross is referring to Grierson's Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century Oxford University Press, 1921. ISBN 0-19-881102-0. page xxiv.
  2. note fussell see Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, McGraw Hill, 1965, revised 1979. ISBN 0-07-553606-4.
  3. note turco see Lewis Turco, The New Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics ISBN 0-87451-380-4 and ISBN 0-87451-381-2 (paperback), original 1968, expanded version 1986.
  4. note williams see Miller Williams, Patterns of Poetry, Louisiana State University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8071-1253-4. ISBN 0-8071-1330-1 (paperback).
  5. see Turco, op. cit. page 15.
  6. note corn Alfred Corn, The Poem's Heartbeat, ISBN 1-885266-40-5, Story Line Press, 1997. page 27.
  7. note baldwin "English feet concern themselves with stressed and unstressed syllables, normally notated / and ×. The snag is that some continental measures, including a number of forms that have found their way into English, are concerned with long and short syllables, generally notated – and ⌣. " — page 79, Michael Baldwin, The Way to Write Poetry, Elm Tree Books / Hamish Hamilton, 1982. ISBN 0-241-10749-0.
  8. note steele see Timothy Steele, All the fun's in how you say a thing, Ohio University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8214-1260-4.
  9. note otherIctusAndX see for example, Peter Makin (editor) Basil Bunting on Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8018-6166-7. See page 199.
  10. note princeton see for example the article on 'Iamb' (page 360), Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Enlarged Edition, Macmillan, 1965, enlarged 1974. ISBN 0-333-18122-0 (paperback).
  11. note bridges see Robert Bridges, Milton's Prosody, with a chapter on Accentual Verse and Notes
  12. note hobsbaum see Philip Hobsbaum, Metre, Rhythm and Verse Form Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0-415-08797-X.
  13. see Corn, op. cit. page 29.
  14. Wallace's essay is reprinted in David Baker (editor), Meter in English, A Critical Engagement, University of Arkansas Press, 1996. ISBN 1-55728-444-X. See page 34 for comments on Trager Smith.
  15. note jespersen see Wallace's essay in Baker, op. cit. page 30.
  16. note cornAgain see Corn, op. cit. page 30.
  17. note attridgeSingle see Derek Attridge, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-521-42369-4. Appendix I, page 213

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Stabreim, alliterative meter, blocking, detailing, enumeration, itemization, measure, meter, metrical pattern, metrics, numbers, parsing, prosodic pattern, prosody, quantitative meter, resolution, scanning, schematization, syllabic meter, vers libre, versification
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