A Guide to Poetry Terminology

January 30, 2023

Open poetry books and a cup of tea. Photo by Thought Catalog on Pexels.com.
Open poetry books and a cup of tea

Hey, folks!

I realize that, as an editor of verse, I often throw around lingo that not everyone knows. So I figured it would be a good idea to cover some basic poetry terms in a handy-dandy guide you can come back to!

If you follow me on Instagram (@k.d.editing), you will have seen this information as a five-part post over the last couple weeks – though there are bits of additional information thrown in here to check out.

Whether you write poetry or picture books in verse (or simply read them!), you’re likely to encounter at least some of these terms. So let’s dive in!

What’s covered:

Rhyme scheme


At the basics, rhyming is when two or more words sound alike. This can happen at the end of lines or within them.

End rhymes are usually what people think of when they hear “rhyming.”

Rain, rain, go away
Come again another day

Here, “away” and “day” rhyme. But did you notice something else?

Rain, rain, go away
Come again another day

“Rain” and “again” also rhyme! This is called internal rhyme, where the rhyme doesn’t occur at the end of the line. Note that words in an internal rhyme can be at the end, so long as others are in the lines themselves – think of the title The Cat in the Hat. “Hat” is at the end, but it rhymes with “cat,” making it internal.

Words that sound perfectly alike are called perfect or true rhymes: cat and hat, spite and right, bower and flower.

Words that don’t quite match, but do sound similar, are called slant or near rhymes: rain and again, good and mood, kind and brine. Note how some rhymes are more slant than others, meaning they’re a bit more of a stretch to notice the rhyme.

Another type is eye rhymes, where the words look like they should rhyme, but don’t: though and cough.

In poetry, it’s fun to play around with all of the above! But note that for picture books written in verse, while both end and internal rhymes are encouraged, you should stick with perfect rhymes for the sound. These encourage children to try and read along and guess what’s coming next.

Rhyme Scheme

Have you ever come across text about a poem and seen something like “it has a pattern of ABAB,” but you’re not sure what that means?

Those letters are simply standing in for the end rhyming pattern, or rhyme scheme, of the poem.

Take a look at the first stanza of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18”:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date

Look at the end rhymes. “Day” rhymes with “May” (a perfect rhyme), and “temperate” rhymes with “date” (a slant rhyme). But to get the rhyme scheme, you assign each rhyme a letter.

The last word of the first line is always A. If the second line rhymes with it, it’s also A – but here, it doesn’t rhyme, which makes it B. The third rhymes with the first, making it A, and the fourth rhymes with the second, making it B. So the pattern for this stanza is ABAB:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? A
Thou art more lovely and more temperate: B
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, A
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date B

In “Sonnet 18,” the second stanza has the same pattern, but doesn’t carry on the sounds of the first stanza, so it’s labelled CDCD, and so on.


Meter is essentially the pattern of sounds in a poem. It’s broken down into stresses, which make up feet.

Stresses refer to syllables, which are either stressed or unstressed. Stresses are the parts of words we naturally place emphasis on, such as the second syllable in “compare.” Stresses are often marked by a slash or are bolded.

Unstressed syllables are where we don’t naturally place emphasis, like the first syllable in “compare.” They’re often marked by a lowercase “u” or left in regular type.

Let’s look at “Sonnet 18” again. When you look for a pattern, you get u/u/u/u/u/

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Sometimes the pattern can take a second to find since some words can be naturally stressed or unstressed. But you’ll find it if it’s there!

When stresses are grouped together, the patterns they form get different names. The most common is iambic, like the example above – unstressed then stressed. It’s common in part because it’s the closest sounding to natural speech.

Other patterns include trochaic (/u), anapestic (uu/), dactylic (/uu), spondaic (//), and the rarely used pyrrhic (uu).

The groups themselves are called feet. In the above example, u/ is one foot. The number of feet in a line determines the metrical name, commonly one of eight options: monometer, dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter, and octameter.

If you’re writing within a meter, know that it’s good to mix it up! That can simply look like dropping one of the syllables from time to time (ex. foregoing the stress in the last iambic foot in a line), or changing the pattern where it makes sense to (ex. having a line turn spondaic when characters are clapping). This prevents it from getting too repetitive and sing-songy.


Stanzas are one of the backbones of a poem. Determining how long each one is, how many are in a poem, and where the cut-off points are are all incredibly important. But when we say “stanza,” what exactly does that entail?

Stanzas are basically poetry’s equivalent of a paragraph (barring prose poetry, which does use paragraphs). Even as little as one line can make up a stanza, and each stanza functions as a unit to convey an idea.

Stanzas often contain one to eight lines (though of course there are ones that are longer). Each length has its own name: monostich, couplet, tercet, quatrain, quintain/quintet, sestet, septet, and octave.

For instance, a haiku is a tercet, and a traditional sonnet is an octave plus a sestet.


Scanning or scansion is the process of breaking down a poem to find its rhyme scheme, meter, stanza type, and poem type.

Scanning “Sonnet 18” using all the lingo we’ve learned to date, you can determine that
– it rhymes, and has a pattern of ABAB/CDCD/EFEF/GG
– it’s written in iambic pentameter, with each line composed of five feet of u/
– it’s made up of three quatrains and a couplet

As for poem type, it’s a Shakespearean Sonnet. Other types include ballad, haiku, ghazal, limerick, etc. Each type has its own requirements for composition.

Scanning is part of what I do when I edit verse, especially when I developmentally edit poetry. Once I determine what the elements are, or what they *could* be, I’ll know how to best help my client.

And there you have it! A guide to basic poetry lingo. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! 🙂 If any of these terms interested you, I encourage you to look them up and learn more about them. And if you found this to be helpful, bookmark this page so you can return to it as needed.

Looking for an editor for your verse? Head over to my contact page and send me a message!

Published by Kaila Desjardins

Freelance editor, fiction writer, proud nerd.

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