The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Accent: The stress, or emphasis, placed on a syllable (the symbols ´ and ˘ are used for stressed and unstressed syllables, respectively). Three main types of accent exist. Word accent refers to the stress (or lack thereof) placed on syllables of words as they are pronounced in ordinary speech. Rhetorical accent refers to the stress placed on syllables or words according to their location or importance in a sentence. Metrical accent refers to the stress placed on syllables in accordance with the poetic meter; when the metrical pattern of a poem “forces” a syllable to be stressed that would not be stressed in ordinary speech, the accent is said to be wrenched. In versification, accent refers specifically to the meter itself, the more or less regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Some poets and critics, however, differentiate between accent and stress, reserving the term stress for metrical emphasis and accent for the emphasis used in everyday discourse (word accent).

Accent may also refer to distinctive regional speech patterns and intonations (for example, a Brooklyn or Texas accent).

EXAMPLES: Accent in the following sentence is different depending on whether word accent, rhetorical accent, or metrical accent is used. Using word accent, you’d probably say it like this:

“I’ll do the grocery shopping later, Pam.” [word accent]

If you wanted to stress the fact that you, and not someone else, were going to do the shopping, you’d probably say the sentence more like this:

“I’ll do the grocery shopping later, Pam.” [rhetorical accent]

As a line in a poem written in iambic pentameter, a meter in which every line contains a regular pattern of five alternating unstressed and stressed syllables, the accents would look like this:

“Ĭ’ll dó thĕ grócer̆y shóppin̆g látĕr, Pám.” [metrical accent]

In the following poem, “’Faith’ is a fine invention” (c. 1860), Emily Dickinson placed a rhetorical accent on the word see as well as on the entire word Microscopes. Note that the last syllable of the last line (cy) carries a metrical accent made evident, in part, by the stress placed on see two lines earlier.

“Fáith” і́s ă fі́ne ı̇̆nvéntı̇̆on

Whĕn Géntlĕmĕn căn sée

Bŭt ́cróscópes ăre prúdĕnt

Iń ăn Ĕmérgĕncý.