Forms of emphasis

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The noun emphasis and verb emphasize are used in two ways:

  • Used in reference to speech, emphasis is the stress which may be placed on a particular syllable, word, phrase, or sentence: e.g., ‘In the word ‘irrevocable’ the emphasis falls on the second syllable’, ‘Most Italian words have the emphasis on the penultimate syllable’, and ‘In the sentence ‘I am so sorry’ the word ‘so’ is often emphasized’. In transcripts of speech emphasis of this kind is shown, in printed texts, by the use of bold or italic fonts or by underlining and, in hand-written texts, by underlining.
  • Used in reference to the content of what is said or written, emphasis is the special prominence or significance given to a particular part of, or point in, the relevant material: e.g., ‘The emphasis in the Minister’s speech was on the need for British companies to find new export markets’, ‘The school’s prospectus places great emphasis on the wide range of subjects available at A-level’, and ‘The Minister emphasised the need for greater transparency in the way government contracts are awarded’.

The general purpose of emphasis of this second kind is to draw the listener’s (or reader’s) attention to (a particular part or aspect of) what is said (or written). However, the specific reasons why emphasis may be necessary on a particular occasion are many and various: emphasis may serve, e.g., to assure listeners of the genuineness or strength of the speaker’s feelings (as in ‘I am so very sorry to hear of your misfortune’ or ‘I am fed up to the back teeth with your casual attitude’); or to remind them of a fact they are liable to forget (as in ‘The class next week will be on Thursday, not Wednesday’); or to assure them of the truth of an improbable fact (as in ‘The rumour is true – the Prime Minister has resigned’); or to persuade them to accept an unpalatable fact (as in ‘Unless he mends his ways, your son really will end up in prison’).

There are various other ways, besides emphasis of the first kind, in which emphasis of the second kind can be shown. They include:

  • using intensifiers such as ‘really’, ‘very’, ‘terribly’, ‘utterly’, as in ‘I am really pleased you were able to come’ or ‘He was terribly upset that you weren’t there’.
  • repeating a word, as in ‘I am very, very sorry to have to give you this news’ or ‘I am tired, tired, tired’.
  • placing a word in an unusual position, typically at the beginning of a sentence, as in ‘Never again will I believe what he tells me’ or ‘Disgraceful – there’s no other word to describe their behaviour’.
  • using cleft sentences such as ‘It was John who told me you had moved to Manchester’ (rather than ‘John told me you had moved to Manchester’), ‘Wednesday is the day we usually meet’ (rather than ‘We usually meet on Wednesday’), ‘The person you ought to ask about that is Bill’ (rather than ‘You ought to ask Bill about that’). For more about this construction see Cleft sentences.

For possible problems in the spelling and pronunciation of emphasis and emphasize see Emphasis.