Rhythm in Phonetics, Poetics, and Style

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

switch labeled "rhythm"
In Reading Like a Writer (2006), Francine Prose says, "Rhythm gives words a power that cannot be reduced to, or described by, mere words.". Iván Zoltán / EyeEm / Getty Images

In phonetics, rhythm is the sense of movement in speech, marked by the stress, timing, and quantity of syllables. Adjective: rhythmic.

In poetics, rhythm is the recurring alternation of strong and weak elements in the flow of sound and silence in sentences or lines of verse.

Pronunciation: RI-them


From the Greek, "flow"

Examples and Observations

"In music, the rhythm is usually produced by making certain notes in a sequence stand out from others by being louder or longer or higher...In speech, we find that syllables take the place of musical notes or beats, and in many languages the stressed syllables determine the rhythm...

"What does seem to be clear is that rhythm is useful to us in communicating: it helps us to find our way through the confusing stream of continuous speech, enabling us to divide speech into words or other units, to signal changes between topic or speaker, and to spot which items in the message are the most important."
(Peter Roach, Phonetics. Oxford University Press, 2001)

Recognizing Rhythmic Defects

​"The writer is not advised to try consciously for special rhythmic effects. He ought, however, to learn to recognize rhythmic defects in his own prose as symptoms of poor or defective arrangement of sentences and sentence elements...

"The following sentence will illustrate:

Oriental luxury goods—jade, silk, gold, spices, vermillion, jewels—had formerly come overland by way of the Caspian Sea; and a few daring sea captains, now that this route had been cut by the Huns, catching the trade winds, were sailing from Red Sea ports and loading up at Ceylon.

The sentence is passable and is perhaps not noticeably unrhythmical. But if we read this sentence in the form in which Robert Graves actually wrote it, we shall find that it is not only clearer, it is much more rhythmical and much easier to read:

Oriental luxury goods—jade, silk, gold, spices, vermillion, jewels—had formerly come overland by way of the Caspian Sea, and now that this route had been cut by the Huns, a few daring Greek sea captains were sailing from Red Sea ports, catching the trade winds and loading up at Ceylon.

(Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Modern Rhetoric, 3rd ed. Harcourt, 1972)

Rhythm and Parallelism

"Parallelism builds rhythm, and nonparallelism kills it. Imagine that Marc Antony had said: 'I came for the purpose of burying Caesar, not to praise him.' Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

"Inattentive writers muck up lists badly, throwing imbalanced cadences together and leaving their sentences scrambling. The elements of a list should echo each other in length, number of syllables, and rhythm. 'A government of the people, by the people, for the people' works. 'A government of the people, that the people created, for the people' doesn't."
(Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Broadway, 1999)

Rhythm and Meter

"Meter is what results when the natural rhythmical movements of colloquial speech are heightened, organized, and regulated so that pattern—which means repetition—emerges from the relative phonetic haphazard of ordinary utterance. Because it inhabits the physical form of the words themselves, meter is the most fundamental technique of order available to the poet."
(Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, rev. ed. Random House, 1979)

Rhythm and Syllables

​"Pitch, loudness, and tempo combine to make up a language's expression of rhythm. Languages vary greatly in the way in which they make rhythmical contrasts. English uses stressed syllables produced at roughly regular intervals of time (in fluent speech) and separated by unstressed syllables—a stress-timed rhythm which we can tap out in a 'tum-te-tum' way, as in a traditional line of poetry: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day. In French, the syllables are produced in a steady flow, resulting in a 'machine-gun' effect—a syllable-timed rhythm which is more like a 'rat-a-tat-a-tat.' In Latin, it was the length of a syllable (whether long or short) which provided the basis of rhythm. In many oriental languages, it is pitch height (high vs. low)."
(David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2005)

Virginia Woolf on Style and Rhythm

​"Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now, this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than any words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing...one has to recapture this and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit in."
(Virginia Woolf, letter to Vita Sackville-West, September 8, 1928)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Rhythm in Phonetics, Poetics, and Style." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/rhythm-phonetics-poetics-and-style-1692065. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Rhythm in Phonetics, Poetics, and Style. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rhythm-phonetics-poetics-and-style-1692065 Nordquist, Richard. "Rhythm in Phonetics, Poetics, and Style." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rhythm-phonetics-poetics-and-style-1692065 (accessed March 21, 2023).

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