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A feminine ending is a line in verse where the last syllable is slack. For example, the first four lines of Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" monologue all have feminine endings.

To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--

If you read that passage aloud, you'll see that there's a clear contrast between the first four lines and the fifth line. This is because the first four lines have feminine endings, while the fifth line does not.

What are some good gender-neutral alternatives to the phrase "feminine ending"?

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    I will guess now that it's not the phrase that conjures the stereotype, but the stereotype which conjures the phrase. Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 18:07
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    I'm downvoting this question because it seems pointless. If the accepted term for a particular literary technique is "feminine ending", why would you want to look for a different term which doesn't involve gender? It's like trying to create a gender-neutral version of the French language in which non-animate objects don't have gendered nouns, or a colour-neutral equivalent for the phrase black moment. What's the point of doing such a thing?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 20:41

4 Answers 4

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This issue came up in the book Meter in English: A Critical Engagement, which is essentially a bunch of scholars and poets debating various points about meter. Robert Wallace proposed using the term extra-syllable ending, abbreviated e-s ending. Annie French proposed using the term "falling ending," arguing that "falling ending" sounds less clunky, and that the sound of "falling ending" -- falling| ending| -- communicates the fact that the last syllable of a falling ending line is unstressed.

I've also heard the phrase "weak ending" used as well (e.g. this Oxford Reference webpage). Personally, I prefer the phrase falling ending. But if you are so inclined, "weak ending" and "extra syllabic ending" should work as well.

In Meter in English: A Critical Engagement, several people argued that historically, the term feminine ending didn't refer to gender at all. Instead, it referred to the fact that the feminine ending in French words was unstressed. Personally, I'm not sure if I find this argument convincing. First of all, I know that grammatical gender is a thing, but so is linguistic relativity. Second, regardless of the origin of the term, it's pretty clear to me that in modern English, the term reinforces the stereotypical association of women with weakness. So I personally would prefer not to use it, although I won't hold it against you if you do.

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    I think there's ample evidence that the term feminine ending originally comes from French grammatical gender. And I would further suspect that the term weak ending comes from the fact that the feminine was associated with weak, and not the other way around. I am sure Italians would argue that there's absolutely nothing weak about it. (So you might argue that weak ending is even more politically incorrect than feminine ending.)
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 21:31
  • @PeterShor good point. (This is the second time I've been wrong on this site today). What I was trying to talk about with "weak" is the fact that a feminine ending sounds less forceful (e.g. the contrast between " Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--"). I'll probably edit this question/answer at some point.
    – user111
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 23:55
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    I've upvoted this answer, but I'd suggest that the last two sentences (which are opinionated, unsupported by any evidence, possibly incorrect as @PeterShor notes, and don't help to answer the question asked) should either be moved to the question or removed altogether.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 20:44
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The term hypercatalectic is used with this meaning. It originally applied only to Greek and Latin poetry:

Hypercatalectic, in the Greek and Latin poetry, is applied to a verse† that has one or two syllables too much, or beyond the regular and just measure

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3rd edition (1797), volume IX, p. 45.

† That is, a line of verse.

But it gradually came to be applied to English poetry too. Here are three early examples.

Their only irregularity […] is their having two hypercatalectic syllables, which Shakespear and the Dramatic Poets frequently use. Thus in Macbeth, “Come take my milk for gall, ye murd’ring ministers!”

Charles Dunster, ed. (1795). Paradise Regained, p. 34, note to line 302. London: T. Cadell, Jr. & W. Davies.

In other words, an anapaest, or other equivalent foot, often occurs, and sometimes, perhaps, an emphatic monosyllable takes the place of an iambus; and a hypercatalectic, or redundant short syllable, is frequently found at the end of a line.

Robert Bell, ed. (1854). Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, volume I, p. 55. London: John W. Parker & Son.

A line of English blank verse ought to consist regularly of ten syllables […]. But the lines have often a redundant unaccented syllable at the end, or are what Greek and Latin grammarians call hypercatalectic.

J. M. Jephson, ed. (1864). The Tempest, p. 76, note to I.2.1. London: Macmillan.

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TLDR: You can use "double rhyme" or "double ending".

For rhyming poetry, the term double rhyme has long been used for this, and still seems to be reasonably common today.

In fact, this term is probably older than feminine rhyme in English. The OED has a citation for double rhyme in 1693, which is well before I can find any mention of feminine rhyme used for English poetry in Google books.

Of course, you can have feminine endings without them being rhymes, so maybe double rhyme isn't an actual answer to your question. The phrase double ending has been used for this.

For example, in 1842, Edgar Allen Poe wrote:

Now a great number of Professor Longfellow's Hexameters are merely these dactylic lines, continued for two feet. For example —

whispered the | race of the | flowers and | merry on | balancing | branches.

In this example, also, “branches,” which is a double ending, must be regarded as the cæsura, or one syllable, of which alone it has the force.

but it seems to have been much more common in the 19th century and earlier than it is today. Today, double ending is much more likely to mean a double end to the poem narratively or thematically. However, one assumes that context would generally make which meaning is relevant is clear, so maybe it's time to reintroduce the term *double ending.

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  • But feminine rhyme include both double and triple rhyme, doesn't it? So "multiple rhyme"?
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 9, 2022 at 22:47
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John Lennard's The Poetry Handbook has this to say on the matter:

Lines can also be hypermetric (from Greek υπερ [hyper], ‘over-’, + ‘meter’), with an extra beat, like Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet (text from F1) :
To be, or not to be, that is the Question :
To BE, | or NOT | to BE, | THAT is | the QUES- | tion :
‘THAT is’, the fourth foot, is inverted, a trochee, but the others are regular iambs, and the line works as an iambic pentameter despite the fact that ‘-tion’ is an eleventh beat. Such additional beats used to be called feminine endings if unstressed, and masculine endings if stressed ; these sexist terms are easily replaced by stressed and unstressed hyperbeats.

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