HOW TO USE EMPHASIS IN WRITING Emphasis in writing is important not only to create variety and maintain interest but also to help readers easily glean the main points from the text. The subject and associated verb in an independent clause are the elements that generally receive the most notice by readers, so that is often where you will want to make your point. Short, snappy sentences are naturally emphatic. Though effective when used sparingly, they lose their power when overused. In order to give more meaning to your writing and to help readers understand which ideas are most important, combine short, related sentences in order to make writing smoother and to create emphasis. Coordination and Subordination One of the best ways to emphasize main ideas and de-emphasize less important ideas is through coordination and subordination of sentence parts. Use Coordination for Equal Ideas Coordination means combining sentences or sentence parts that have matching grammatical forms and connecting them using conjunctions (such as and, or, so, and but), conjunctive adverbs (such as however, therefore, hence, and nevertheless), or semicolons. When using conjunctions to coordinate ideas, you can use a comma with conjunction. Examples: He talked to me yesterday, but he didn’t mention the move. She walks to work, and she reads during lunch. Conjunctive adverbs (preceded by a semicolon) also show the relationship between two independent clauses. Examples: You’re the best person I know; however, I don’t know a lot of people. We made the best choice we could; consequently, I’m not going to worry about it. You can also use transitional phrases—such as on the other hand, for example, or in addition—to coordinate ideas. Examples: I think they made some good points; in fact, I might be willing to invest in their concept. He arrives late almost every day; on the other hand, he works quite late, as well. If the sentences are closely related, you can also leave out the comma and conjunction or the conjunctive adverb and use just a semicolon. Jan started playing fifteen years ago; she was only five. Dan Bros. was awarded the contract; they’ll begin working on it next week. When using conjunctions or conjunctive adverbs, make sure to choose a word that adequately conveys the relationship between the two clauses. For example, if you want to contrast two ideas, you would generally use but or however, rather than and or thus. Coordinating ideas using and, or, and similar words is quite easy; however, because of this, coordination is often overused. Your writing will generally be more effective if you use subordination to more clearly relate ideas that are in fact less important. Original:
Mr. Damon arrived for the meeting, and he saw that the decision had already been made. Revised: When Mr. Damon arrived at the meeting, he saw that the decision had already been made. Use Subordination for Unequal Ideas Subordination means combining two related ideas that are not equal. In such cases, the more important idea is part of the main clause and the less important idea is part of the subordinate clause. Such clauses are often introduced by subordinating conjunctions (such as although, as, furthermore, unless, because, though, if, and so forth). Subordinating ideas can also be set off by relative pronouns, such as that, which, and who. Examples: He said that the party would be on Saturday, though I’m not sure what time it starts. I’ve been waiting for this vacation for two years; furthermore, I can’t refund my tickets. We will go in August, which is the best time to be there. Relative clauses can also be used to add subordinate information. Examples: All the employees are huge basketball fans. That makes it a very fun winter. He couldn’t give me a straight answer. This leaves a lot of room for doubt. In such cases, the latter sentence can often be combined with the preceding sentence. Examples: All the employees are huge basketball fans, making it a very fun winter. He couldn’t give me a straight answer, leaving a lot of room for doubt. Less important ideas can also be structured as part of a participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence and combined with a main idea in a second sentence to form one sentence from two. Original: I left early one evening from work. I saw a beautiful sunrise on the way home. My daughter saw that our neighbor needed help. She went over and lent him a hand. Revised: Leaving early one evening from work, I saw a beautiful sunrise on the way home. Seeing that our neighbor needed help, my daughter went over and lent him a hand. Appositives also allow you to combine two sentences, when both sentences modify the same noun, by embedding one related sentence into another. Original: Jared Morgan works in our department. He has quickly become the favorite go-to guy. When we bought the new windows, they were the latest thing. That was two years ago. Combined: Jared Morgan, who works in our department, has quickly become the favorite go-to guy. When we bought the new windows, which was two years ago, they were the latest thing. Subordination is a very worthwhile tool to help emphasize the most important points in your writing. Be careful, however, not to cram too many ideas into one sentence. If a sentence seems too long, especially when discussing complex ideas, divide the sentence into smaller pieces so that your readers don’t become bogged down or confused.
Sentence Structure In addition to using coordination and subordination, emphasis in writing can be achieved in several other ways. One of these is by parallelism. Another is by using occasional short sentences. One of the best ways to create emphasis is by using carefully chosen, powerful words. Another way is to employ judicious repetition. A fifth is through contrast. A sixth is by putting the most important words or phrases (that is, the most important points) at the end of a sentence. And finally, you can occasionally create emphasis through punctuation and typographical elements. Parallelism Parallel structure in a sentence naturally emphasizes paired ideas or ideas listed in a series. Constructions that compare or contrast paired ideas naturally draw attention to the words that emphasize those pairs. Examples: They resolved never to talk about each other but always to talk with each other. These mountains to the west are beautiful, yet the mountains to the east are even more lovely. For items in a series, parallel structure generally emphasizes the last item. For this reason, the final item should usually be the most important. Examples: Last year was fantastic: I graduated from college, moved out of my parents’ place, got my first job, and married my beautiful wife. If you want to be successful, learn to do what successful people do—get up early and plan your day, prioritize your time and work hard, and make sure that important people see the results of the important work that you do. Short Sentences As mentioned above, using too many short sentences causes writing to seem needlessly choppy or repetitious. An occasional short sentence, however, not only helps to keep readers’ interest by staving off an overabundance of long sentences, but it is also a simple way to emphasize an idea. Example: Before I got married, my mother told me that I should plan things well in advance, that I should use a wedding planner to take care of the details, that I should pick a day at least six months away and stick with it, and that I should focus my energy on getting to know my future husband. So I did. Word Choice Careful word choice is one of the best ways to emphasize main ideas or themes in your writing. Vivid, carefully placed words not only grab the reader’s attention, but they can aid in understanding, as well. Carefully choose the nouns and verbs that you use, as well as the adjectives and adverbs that describe them. In the examples below, notice the difference between the following passages that results from a few simple changes in wording. Original:
When Weston began working at the company, he didn’t really know what he was doing. But he quickly learned the ropes, and now he has worked his way up through the ranks of the company to become supervisor of his division. Really, he is one of the best employees we’ve ever had in this place. Better: When Weston began working for Tucker and Denton Incorporated, our policies and procedures were quite foreign to him. Nevertheless, he put his heart into his work and quickly learned the ropes, and now he is the supervisor of his division. His dedication and perseverance have made him one of the best employees we have ever had. You can greatly improve your repertoire of words by consulting a thesaurus or dictionary on a regular basis. By doing so, you can find the best words to convey your meaning so that your writing will be both clear and interesting. Repetition Use judicious repetition to emphasize an idea or main point. Though repetition can irritate if it is used overmuch, it can be a very effective tool when used appropriately and without overkill. Repetition is particularly useful when employed in conjunction with parallel constructs. In the following example, repetition helps drive home the point the speaker is making. Example: Strangers aren’t always the people in another country; sometimes they are the people next door. Strangers aren’t always somewhere out there; sometimes they’re the people in your home. A stranger isn’t always someone else—sometimes he’s the person in your soul. Repetition can help burn an image into your reader’s mind or simply reinforce an important point. But again, do not overuse repetition in your writing, as doing so can make your writing overly long and dull. Contrast Using contrasting words or phrases is another way to emphasize particular points or ideas. As with repetition, contrast is particularly effective when combined with parallelism. Example: He’s not smart as a surgeon but rather crafty as a fox. Contrast is also achieved by using transitional words and phrases such as however, but, yet, although, unfortunately, on the other hand, and the like. Such words pointedly distinguish one idea from another. Example: We left early in order to beat rush-hour traffic; unfortunately, we still missed our plane. End of Sentence When we speak, the emphasis naturally comes at the end of the sentence. Our voices gradually rise toward the end of the sentence before abruptly falling. Thus, when writing, a simple, effective way to emphasize main ideas and important concepts is to structure your sentence so that the words you want emphasized come at the end of the sentence. Original: Death and taxes are the only things certain in this life.
Mud pie used to be my favorite dessert in the whole world. Revised: The only things certain in this life are death and taxes. My favorite dessert in the whole world used to be mud pie. In the examples above, waiting to put the main point (the verb followed by the subject) at the end of the sentence helps build interest [and even suspense]. Punctuation and Typography Punctuation or typographic elements can be used occasionally to emphasize a word, phrase, or sentence. When overused, however, they quickly lose their emphatic power and can irritate readers. In general, the more formal the type of writing, the less such devices should be used. In most cases, other techniques such as those mentioned above are preferred. The most common punctuation mark used for emphasis is the exclamation point. It be used sparingly, and it is never appropriate in formal writing to use more than one. A question mark and exclamation point should not be used together in formal writing. The typographical device most commonly used for emphasis is italics. Bold and italics can also be used together, though this device should be used very rarely. All caps are also sometimes used, particularly when introducing an important note or warning. Underlining is best avoided, as underlining can make text more difficult to read. In some documents, a distinct font (such as a sans serif font when the main text is serif) is used to draw readersâ€™ attention to important information. This technique can be very effective when used appropriately. Below are examples of sentences that have been revised to better use emphasis. Original: Please turn in your annual reports before 5 p.m. on Friday, January 10. All employees should bring at least two forms of identification and their social security cards with them on the first day of work. School ID cards will not be accepted. Better: Please turn in your annual reports before 5 p.m. on Friday, January 10. All employees should bring at least two forms of identification and their social security cards with them on the first day of work. School ID cards will not be accepted.
Heaps, S. Writeexpress. Recovered on July 19, 2013, http://www.writeexpress.com/emphasis.html.
Changingminds.org. Recovered on July 19, 2013, http://changingminds.org/techniques/language/modifying_meaning/emphasis_writin g.htm.