I am working on a sonnet. This pretty much mandates the use of iambic pentameter and therefore requires that I have a good grip on emphasis.

However, I'm not exactly sure how to properly research words for emphasis. I was attempting to comprehend Merriam-Webster's Pronunciation Guide, but that just further confused me.

Merriam-Webster has a system for indicating the stressing of syllables; almost every page has a set of symbols delimited by backslashes, describing the word's emphasis.

I was wondering if anyone experienced in the emphasis and or word pronunciation could help me understand this notation with an example or two.

  • 1
    Have a look at these systems for denoting stress. I find M-W's notation confusing; if you agree, you may prefer a dictionary that uses IPA, like Wiktionary (here's today's word of the day as an example) or OAAD.
    – aedia λ
    Oct 18, 2011 at 5:19
  • 2
    We could all just switch to speaking Hungarian. Then there'd be no question about where the stress goes in a word: it'd always go on the first syllable. :D
    – Marthaª
    Oct 18, 2011 at 15:15
  • I propose renaming the site Hungarian.SE. It would make some things a lot simpler.
    – Daniel
    Oct 22, 2011 at 20:31

1 Answer 1


I highly recommend Stephen Fry's "The Ode Less Travelled". He starts by explaining the various rhythms of iambic pentameter, including all the various substitutions and how to use them effectively, and provides exercises to help you.

I wrote a poem about software development in Iambic Pentameter recently after reading this book. Iambic pentameter normally follows this rhythm:

da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA

Or, using the notation you suggested:

da da' da da' da da' da da' da da'

An iamb is a foot, and there are five of them, hence pentameter. You can occasionally substitute the iambs, and it's also OK to put a falling note after the last iamb since most words in English end that way. Hopefully my poem provides you with some examples of this, but I would still recommend the book.

  • 1
    A 'leg'? Don't you mean 'foot'? Oct 18, 2011 at 11:32
  • I thought foot, and typed leg. Obviously there's a problem somewhere between my keyboard and my chair. Thank you.
    – Lunivore
    Oct 18, 2011 at 13:51
  • I second the recommendation of The Ode Less Travelled. (Preferably get both the audiobook and the text version, so that you can hear the parts you need to hear, and read the parts you don't.) Oct 19, 2011 at 17:52
  • If you second the recommendation then an upvote would be nice ;)
    – Lunivore
    Oct 20, 2011 at 13:57
  • "If only we had known from the beginning...The ignorance we found along the way." Very nice. Oct 21, 2011 at 17:21

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