I am studying poetry structure and I am focusing on iambic pentameter at the moment.

From what I have read, there are 10 syllables per line and 5 stressed and 5 unstressed syllables. It goes unstressed, stressed, unstressed etc.

For words that have more than one syllable, it seems that the stressed and unstressed pattern is set already. e.g. if you go to dictionary.com:

after [af-ter] the first syllable is always stressed. 
before [bih-fawr, -fohr] the second syllable is always stressed.

However, with monosyllables, it's not clear.

Example Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Shall I/ compare/ thee to/ a sum/mers day?/

I, be, to, a, thee, not, day etc. are not stressed on their own.

Is it that they are stressed following an unstressed word?

e.g. to be/ I am/ they are/

  • 5
    I’m voting to close this question because it's not really about English usage but rather it's asking a question on literary analysis (i.e. how the interplay between poetic metre and syllabic stress should be understood), and therefore would be more suitable on our Literature site. Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 3:55
  • @ChappoHasn'tForgottenMonica: The question reveals a substantial misunderstanding of the placement of stress in English on the part of the OP, in that they think monosyllabic words in English are unstressed. So it's definitely indirectly about English usage. Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 19:22
  • 1
    You are right, the stressed and unstressed pattern for each polysyllabic word is usually set although monosyllabic words can change their stress sometimes. The Iambic pentameter is constructed by careful choice of the words to make up the line so that the normal stress on the word (at the time of writing, such things can change) forms a pentameter with the correct emphatic rhythm.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 8:27
  • Cross-posted to literature.stackexchange.com/q/19199/139 where it has answers
    – b_jonas
    Commented Jul 27, 2021 at 8:20

1 Answer 1


In natural spoken English, most one-syllable nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs actually are stressed on their own (some verbs, like modal verbs, and versions of have and be very often aren't). Dictionaries don't mark the stress on them; because they only have one syllable, so whether you stress these words or not depends more on the meaning and the whole sentence structure rather than the words themselves.

On the other hand, function words like to and a usually aren't stressed on their own in English speech.

These rules are often broken, for example when people want to emphasize words, or when too many unstressed (or stressed) syllables come in succession.

Using these rules (which are definitely overly simplified) we would scan the lines as follows:

Shall I/ compáre/ thee to/ a súm/mers dáy?
Thou art/ more lóve/ly and/ more tém/perate.
Róugh wínds/ do sháke/ the dár/ling búds/ of Máy,
And súm/mer’s léase/ hath áll/ too shórt/ a dáte.

The stresses don't correspond exactly to the ones required by iambic pentameter, but they come pretty close. In the last two lines the only deviation is rough.

When reading poetry, some deviation from perfect iambic pentameter is expected. If you read this quatrain with the rather simplistic scansion above, in my opinion it sounds quite good (and better than it would if you mechanically stressed every other syllable), even though some literature professors would disagree with this scansion.

Literature professors have come up with all sorts of rules for how to scan English poetry, and not all of them agree. But the bottom line is that if the stresses in your poem are close enough to the stresses of perfect iambic pentameter, it will sound good.

  • 2
    Apparently, McKellen advised Stewart to emphasise the and's in Macbeth's 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow ...'. Commented Jul 24, 2021 at 16:35

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