Double Dactyl Poetry

Write a double dactyl poem in honor of National Grammar Day.

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #557

As far as I know, the word grammatomaniac has not yet been used in a double dactyl. In fact, I even thought I had invented the word, on the model of grammatological and grammatophobia. Then I searched for it, and found that it was coined by H. L. Mencken in 1922, when he wrote: 

There are fanatics who love and venerate spelling as a tom cat loves and venerates catnip. There are grammatomaniacs; schoolmarms who would rather parse than eat; specialists in an objective case that doesn’t exist in English; strange beings otherwise sane and even intelligent and comely who suffer under a split infinitive as you or I would suffer under gastro-enteritis. (H. Kl. Mencken, Prejudices: Third Series, Volume 3, 1922, pp. 245-246)

To Mencken’s coinage, I would add that grammatomaniacs can also be people who are just plain interested in how languages work. In fact, in an earlier draft of the poem, I called them language enthusiasts instead of grammatomaniacs, but that’s no good. Although language enthusiasts does consist of two dactyls, it’s two words, not one. It has to be one word! The rules are very clear about this. Actually, Hecht and Hollander also specify that the double-dactylic single word should be in the second four lines, and ideally in the second-to-last line, but I just couldn’t make that work.

Here are some tips for finding or inventing your double-dactylic word: 

  1. Take advantage of long suffixes. The suffixes –ability and -ological have four syllables all by themselves, so you only need two to turn them into words like irritability and dermatological
  2. Take advantage of kind of long suffixes, The suffixes -arity, -atical, -ational, -arian, -ality, -istical, -ography, -ology, and -torial are all dactyls, so you just need to find another dactyl that can combine with them.
  3. Take advantage of two-syllable suffixes. Don’t forget about suffixes such as -able or -ible, as in terrible, and -ian, as in contrarian. 
  4. Remember the suffix -ly. This suffix can turn an adjective into an adverb, and sometimes it can do so without even adding a syllable. The following pairs all have the same number of syllables: unjustifiable, unjustifiably; dermatological, dermatologically.
  5. Take advantage of your prefixes, especially two-syllable ones. These prefixes are often borrowed from Latin or Greek, such as hetero-, hyper-, hypo-, meta-, mono-, neo-, and poly-. The negative prefixes non- and un- are useful for putting a stressed syllable at the beginning of a word.
  6. Look for Latin or Greek bound roots. What’s a bound root, you ask? Take the double-dactyl word pharmacologically. You may recognize the root pharmaco- and figure, correctly, that this word has something to do with drugs. But on its own, pharmaco- is not a word. Linguists call it a bound root. Similarly, the noun grammar can stand on its own, but the dactylic bound root grammato- has to be part of a longer word.


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.