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"?

  • 2
    I will guess now that it's not the phrase that conjures the stereotype, but the stereotype which conjures the phrase. – Gallifreyan Jul 23 '17 at 18:07
  • 1
    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 Jul 24 '17 at 20:41

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.

  • 6
    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 Jul 23 '17 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 Jul 23 '17 at 23:55
  • 2
    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 Jul 24 '17 at 20:44

For rhyming poetry, the term double rhyme has been used.

In fact, that 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 in English in Google books.

Of course, you can have feminine endings without them being rhymes, so maybe this isn't an actual answer to your question.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy