How to Add Emphasis in Writing

how to add emphasis in writingEmphasis is when a particular stress or importance is given to something. Many exceptions to grammatical rules in English relate to emphasising particular words or ideas, making it a very important and also very broad topic. Structure, word order, vocabulary choice, formatting and punctuation can all be used to add emphasis.

Punctuation and Formatting

The simplest way to add emphasis in writing is to use punctuation, such as the exclamation point (!) for dramatic sentences, or formatting, such as using italics, to draw attention to particular words or phrases.

  • The results were in. She had won by one vote!
  • We only work on Wednesdays. (emphasising the limited time-frame)
  • We only work on Wednesdays. (emphasising the specific day)

Some texts use bold, underlining or CAPITALS instead of italics. This has become particularly flexible online. Whatever style you choose, it is important to be consistent.

Expanding abbreviations or contractions can also add emphasis:

  • We don’t repair computers. -> We do not repair computers.

Commas can be used to emphasise a particular word or phrase as an interjection, slowing a sentence down and making a word or phrase stand out. This can also be done with dashes instead of commas.

  • We ran, terrified, through the house.
  • We ran – terrified – through the house.

Additional information can be added in this way to tell us something when it is most striking.

  • The trees, blue and purple all over, did not look healthy. (emphasising an unusual detail)
  • She finished the papers, all the papers, by nightfall. (emphasising the extent of the task)

Be careful not to over-complicate the sentence, which can break the flow, or reduce clarity.

Structural Emphasis

Any variation in a text’s regular structure can add emphasis. For example, an occasional contrastingly short sentence can draw attention to a particular piece of information or for dramatic effect:

There will be no football practice on Monday as we are filling holes in the pitch. Practice will resume as usual on Tuesday. Be there.

The above example’s closing comment is surprisingly forceful. A similar effect could be created with a short sentence in the middle of a paragraph, or a short paragraph in between two long paragraphs.

On the other hand, longer sentences can add emphasis in a text with lots of short sentences:

Barry was only six. He did not know much. He could not count past twenty. One thing he did know, though, was that the brand new Intergalactic Space Fleet Ray Gun would be his.

Front Loading

Placing information earlier in a sentence or clause emphasises it. Sentences are often rearranged with adverbials or prepositional phrases that put information such as times, manners, objects, and locations before the subject and action. The phrase is moved forward and separated by a comma:

  • We’ll be there by dinner time. → By dinner time, we’ll be there.
  • She ate the soup messily. → Messily, she ate the soup.

This can be done with longer phrases or clauses.

  • With messy flicks of the spoon and smacking lips, she ate the soup.

Rearranging clauses is often taught with complex sentences, where either the dependent or independent clause can come first. The first clause carries more emphasis:

  • The game may be cancelled, depending on the weather.
  • Depending on the weather, the game may be cancelled.

Repetition

Repetition of words and phrases adds emphasis in many ways. Throughout a text, repeated describing words (or similar describing words) can set an overall tone or bring to mind a certain image. Repetition of different word types draws attention to their function.

Repeated nouns or pronouns emphasise a particular person or thing (who/what is doing an action):

  • Riley stormed into the kitchen. Riley took the cakes and Riley ate them all herself. (emphasising who is to blame)

Repeated verbs emphasise a continuing action, often to indicate a long or repetitive task:

  • We ran through the town, we ran through the hills, we ran over the bridge and we ran all the way past the castle. (emphasising the endurance of a long, ongoing action)

Repeated prepositions emphasise objects’ relationships to each other:

  • The papers were in the office, in the drawer in your desk. (emphasising awareness of an object’s specific location)

Repeated adverbs or adverbials emphasise how something is done, drawing attention to timing or manner:

  • He quickly looked in the mirror, quickly pulled out and quickly hit the other car.

Such uses are flexible and not limited to these ideas.

A Final Warning

There are many other techniques that can be used to add emphasis in writing, but one thing that all these techniques have in common is that they work because they are exceptions to the typical style, which need to be used strategically. Used too often, they lose their effect; used inappropriately, they can look like mistakes.

I hope this short guide helps. It’s also available as a (free) printable worksheet if you sign up to my mailing list. This article is an abridged introduction to different techniques for adding emphasis in writing, taken from my book Advanced Writing Skills for Students of English. The full chapter is about 3,000 words long, so if you’d like more information on such topics please do check out the book.

2 thoughts on “How to Add Emphasis in Writing

  1. Good day.
    I enjoy your ‘Emphasis on Writing’. It is giving me a another way of making sentences. I hope I can use these when I teach my students in the future.
    Thanks a lot for your guidance.

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