Names of lines of verse by number of feet

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It is conventional to describe the lines of traditional verse by counting the number of feet that they contain. This supplies a noun, which may then be preceded by an adjective identifying the type of foot. These names are constructed from a Greek numerical prefix + the element -meter (from the Greek μέτρον (metron), '[a] measure', or, in verse, 'a poetic foot').

Thus:

  • a line with two feet is a dimeter;
  • a line with three feet is a trimeter (though see further below);
  • a line with four feet is a tetrameter;
  • a line with five feet is a pentameter;
  • a line with six feet is a hexameter;
  • a line with seven feet is a heptameter.

In practice, these are the only lines you are likely to come across in English verse. If you do come across any others, and seek to name them, follow the same principles (and the link) and make such words as enneameter (not recorded in OED).

Probably the commonest type of line in English verse is the iambic pentameter. Cumulatively, iambic pentameters, when unrhymed and united into particular forms or stanzas, as in Shakespeare's plays, are known as blank verse.

Rather confusingly, the expression iambic trimeter is often used, especially in the context of Greek and Latin verse, to refer to a line which consists of SIX iambic feet. This use is justified on the grounds that the lines so described are felt to consist of three units or measures, each consisting of two iambic feet. (See further Quantitative metre.)