Let me explain.

Usually poems written in iambic pentameter have short syllables.

A line could be, say:


But what if we have longer words, like "alluring, "beautiful", "unusual", or "responsibility".

Take "responsibility": It has six syllables. Dictionaries online scan it thus:


Can such a word ever be used in a, say, iambic pentameter? Or given that it's three unaccented syllables followed by an accented one, it's hopeless?

Can we actually change the scansion of a word to make it fit a particular poem, either as writers or as people scanning a poem written by someone who is not present to tell us how we SHOULD read it?

For instance, cigarette is usually read as either CI-ga-rette or ci-ga-RETTE. If one were to read a poetic line such as:

"Smoking cigarettes and talking"

it could be read as

"SMOking CI-ga-RETTES and TALK-ing" and we got ourselves an trochaic trimeter. The question is, can we read it as such?

Thank you for your help.

  • ri-SPON-suh-BIL-i-TEE
    – Adam
    Oct 1, 2015 at 20:26
  • It's not three unaccented syllables followed by an accented one. Even in British English, the second syllable has secondary stress. So it fits fine in an iambic meter. Oct 1, 2015 at 20:29
  • Thanks Peter. But would you say that's true of all words? Are there not words that have multiple unstressed syllables back to back? edit...it cut me off...adding info
    – Roger Sim
    Oct 1, 2015 at 20:36
  • 1
    Yes. You probably don't want to use words like idiosyncracy in iambic pentameter. But there is a lot of flexibility. Oct 1, 2015 at 20:38
  • 1
    "Resuscitating platitudes / With neighbourly conviviality,/ They..." Just two lines from Vikram Seth's 'The Golden Gate.' The whole book is written in fourteen-line verses of iambic tetrameters (a hustled sonnet), even the contents page. Not every page includes "Arnold Schwarzenegger," or "reactivates holistic..." but lots of 'flexibility.' Quote: "He calls her cultural and haughty/ And horticultural --while she..." creates an "aristocratic conflagration..."
    – Hugh
    Oct 1, 2015 at 21:51

1 Answer 1


English words of three syllables with the stress accent not on the middle one, and words of four or more syllables, generally have a secondary stress accent as well as a primary one. A word such as responsibility can even have two secondary stress accents: res - PON - si - BIL - i - TY. As such it readily fits into iambic meter.

That said, iambic pentameter can and will suffer for being too regular—it becomes hypnotic. Thus judicious or instinctual use of trochaic, pyrrhic, and spondaic substitutions is not only permissible but essential. Spondaic substitutions ( / / for ˘ /) just raise the volume on what would normally be an unstressed syllable, and pyrrhhic substitutions (˘ ˘) just lower the volume on what would normally be stressed one. A trochaic substitution ( / ˘ for ˘ /) would seem to advance one of the five main beats of the line so that it occurs earlier, but more typically it results in a syllable’s worth of delay before that beat, and a rushing through of the two unstressed syllables after it, so that the five beats stay on a steady rhythm. Thus in Orlando’s closing couplet of Shakespeare’s As You Like It 1.2, the words into and unto are trochaic substitutions, each creating a caesura in front of it to divide the line in accordance with the antithesis being expressed; while the two consecutive unstressed syllables -to the and -to a are rushed through:

Thus must I from the smoke | into the smother,
From tyrant duke, | unto a tyrant brother.

(I once had a director in that play who wanted Orlando to pronounce into and unto as iambs [in-TO / un-TO], thus spoiling a very nice effect.)

In Shakespeare, when all else fails one must consider the possibility that two separate accentuation patterns may have been current for the same word, as is the case now with harassment. Thus in Richard II, line 2.2.161 uses the word revenues in the way that is normal today, with primary accent on the first syllable and secondary on the last (note too the spondaic substitution in the second foot):

The plate, coin, revenues, and movables

But in line 4.1.212, the word must clearly be accented on its middle syllable:

My manors, rents, revenues I forgo;

  • I like to read iambic pentameter with a mixture of strong and weak iams; not quite pyrrhic substitution, but not monotonus "de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM de DUM" either. More like "dedumdeDUM dedumdedumdeDUM" for two lines, then "deDUM deDUM dedumdedumdeDUM" for two lines, etc. depending upon the text.
    – supercat
    Apr 17, 2017 at 15:34

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