Emphasis (Speech and Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

emphasis
When key points are emphasized, they're made to stand out in sentences and paragraphs. (Martin Barraud/Getty Images)

In writing and speech, the emphasis is the repetition of key words and phrases or the careful arrangement of words to give them special weight and prominence. The most emphatic spot in a sentence is usually the end. Adjective: emphatic.

In the delivery of a speech, emphasis may also refer to the intensity of expression or the stress put on words to indicate their importance or special significance.

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Etymology

From the Greek, "to display"

Examples and Observations

  • The Most Emphatic Positions in a Sentence
    - "Two positions in a clause or sentence are more emphatic than any others--the opening and the closing. . . .
    "Opening with key words has much to recommend it. Immediately, readers see what is important. E.M. Forster, for example, begins a paragraph on 'curiosity' with the following sentence, identifying his topic at once:
    Curiosity is one of the lowest human faculties.
    Putting the essential idea first is natural, suited to a style aiming at the simplicity and directness of forceful speech. . . .
  • Postponing a major point to the end of the sentence is more formal and literary. The writer must have the entire sentence in mind from the first word. On the other hand, the final position is more emphatic than the opening, perhaps because we remember best what we have read last:
    So the great gift of symbolism, which is the gift of reason, is at the same time the seat of man's peculiar weakness--the danger of lunacy."
    - "Putting strong stuff at the beginning and the end helps writers hide weaker stuff in the middle. . . .

    "What applies to the sentence also applies to the paragraph."
  • Emphasis in Independent Clauses
    "A writer of emphatic and interesting prose . . . is careful to place his emphatic materials in independent clauses and his less emphatic materials in dependent ones: he knows that independent clauses, which imply no need for syntactical support outside themselves, transmit an illusion of greater strength and weight. Thus instead of writing, 'He was strolling along the deck when a wave washed him overboard,' he writes, 'While he was strolling along the deck, a wave washed him overboard.' This is an elementary principle, but it is amazing how many aspirant prose writers are innocent of it.
  • Other Means of Achieving Emphasis
    - "A piece of writing may be unified and coherent and still not be effective if it does not observe the principle of emphasis. . . .
    "Flat statement, the order of importance, proportion, and style are major means of emphasis, but there are certain minor ones. For instance, repetition of an idea can give it prominence. . . . Or there is the device of the short, isolated paragraph."
    - "[E]mphasis may also be secured by (1) repetition; (2) by the development of important ideas through supplying plenty of detail; (3) by the allotment of more space to the more important ideas; (4) by contrast, which focuses the reader's attention; (5) by selection of details so chosen that subjects related to the main idea are included and irrelevant material excluded; (6) by climactic arrangement; and (7) by mechanical devices such as capitalization, italics, symbols, and different colors of ink."
    (William Harmon and Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 10th ed. Pearson, 2006)

    Pronunciation

    EM-fe-sis

    Sources

    Thomas Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press, 1988

    Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools. Little, Brown, 2006

    Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter, and Poetic Form, rev. ed. Random House, 1979

    Cleanth Brooks, Fundamentals of Good Writing. Harcourt, 1950