English 365 Banner
Pre-testlessonSourcesquizskills in contextExit Assignment

home :: emphasis lesson

Emphasis Lesson

Sometimes the words themselves are not enough to express the particular emphasis a writer would like to bring across. Even back when writers used typewriters, they found ways to add emphasis to their writing through underlining, quotation marks, exclamation points, and spacing. Today, with sophisticated word processors, writers have many more tools at their disposal, such as boldface, font colors, italics, and font sizes, as well as innumerable font styles to choose from to convey humor, sophistication, anger, or even to suggest a particular historical period.  While your English or science teacher won't always allow you to play around with fonts, it is good to know how to use all of the various tools to create emphasis. In this module students will learn to use the following techniques to create emphasis in their writing:

  • boldface, capitals, and underlines
  • colons
  • commas and dashes
  • exclamation points
  • repetition



Boldface, Capitals, and Underlines in Headings

Words in Boldface, CAPS, italics, and underlines all call attention to themselves.  Hence, they are useful as headings, when one wants to create a hierarchy in text and divide an essay into clear subtopics. MLA format, the format for essays in the humanities, allows writers to develop their own headings, but requires a writer to stay consistent once heading designs have been selected. Consider the following hierarchy of categories for a cd collection, and then look at a set of headings for this collection:

My CD's

  1. Jazz
    1. swing
    2. Bee-Bop
    3. Progressive
    4. Contemporary
  2. Country
    1. Classic country
    2. Contemporary country
    3. Country Rock
    4. Country/Folk
  3. Rock
    1. 60's Rock
    2. 70's Rock
      1. Boston
      2. Van Halen
        1. Van Halen (album name)
        2. Van Halen II
      3. Lynrd Skynrd
    3. 80's Rock
    4. Contemporary rock
    5. Alternative
  4. Classical
    1. Baroque
    2. Classical Period
    3. Romantic Period
    4. Modern

Instead of numbering and indentation, (or numbering and indentation alone) a writer can use boldface, font size, underlining, capitals, and color to create a hierarchy:


70's Rock

Van Halen

Van Halen (album)


APA format, the widely accepted format for essays in the social sciences, developed by the American Psychological Association, has much stricter guidelines for headings than MLA does:


Level 4: Indented, italicized, lowercase paragraph heading ending with a period.

Level 3: Flush Left, Italicized, Uppercase and Lowercase Side Heading

Level 2: Centered, Italicized, Uppercase and Lowercase Heading

Level 1: Centered Uppercase and Lowercase Heading

Take a look at the MLA and APA guides for further information on styles.


Commas and Dashes for Emphasis

As discussed in detail in the Commas module, writers occasionally add a modifying phrase or clause to the middle of a sentence; in this circumstance, the phrase or clause is set off by commas. Sometimes, however, a writer might wish to call more attention to the modifier.  In this situation, dashes are useful.  For example, look at the two versions of a single sentence below, one with commas, one with dashes:

Not excepting the falling stars, for they are far less sudden, there is nothing in nature that so outstrips our unready eyes as the familiar rain.

Not excepting the falling stars—for they are far less sudden—there is nothing in nature that so outstrips our unready eyes as the familiar rain. (Alice Meynell, "Rain")

The dashes are more emphatic.  So most of the time, commas are probably appropriate.  Use the dashes only when you really want to call special attention to something.


Exclamation Points for Emphasis

Exclamation points allow writers to quickly let a reader know that a statement is emphatic.  There is a world of difference between "No." and "No!" for example.  Be careful, however, to use an exclamation mark for strong emotions; overuse of exclamation marks make it seem as if a writer is relying on symbols rather than language to convey meaning.

Wow! Did you really get an A+ on that exam?

Let's take a road trip!

Listen! I think I hear something.

I can't believe you got your nose pierced!


Colons for Emphasis

Colons are an under-used tool. A Colon can be used after an independent clause to introduce a list, but it can also be used to introduce another independent clause that illustrates or elaborates upon the idea in the first clause. One could think of the first clause as a kind of overture, and the second clause as the movement(s) of a symphony. Take a look at the following example. The sentence begins with an independent clause, "The seas were full of islands where spices grew and countless strange creatures lived," the rest of the sentence, which takes up the entire paragraph, illustrates the idea in that first clause:

The seas were full of islands where spices grew and countless strange creatures lived: one-eyed men; men with a lip long enough to cover their whole face; men with only one foot, but that so large that they held it over them like an umbrella when they lay down in the sun to rest; two-headed men and men with no heads at all; men whose only food was snakes, and others whose favorite beverage was human blood; dragons and unicorns; woolly hens and sheep that grew on trees; and in one island a valley where only devils dwelt. (Ten Great Events in History, James Johonnot)



Repetition & Parallel Structure for Emphasis

Balanced Sentences:

Repetition of a parallel structure is a great tool for emphasis. In a series, a repeated structure calls attention to the shared qualities of items in a series:

I am overworked, overtired, overstressed, and overwhelmed.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.
                                                           —Francis Bacon

Be careful, however, not to run on too long with a parallel structure, or the effect will be lost.  The reader will get bored.  Use parallel structure to emphasize an idea rather than to create a list.

Varying the structure calls attention to the element that is different, just as in a work of art a neutral background isolates a point of emphasis:

Democracy is a hot dog at a ball game; it is a city park that invites people of many ethnicies and income levels; it is a protest that draws thousands; it is a classroom in a community college; it is not a surveillance camera on a public street.  


Antithesis is the use of a contrast to define a subject. Used well, antithesis can be striking. 

In taking revenge, man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.

Read not to contradict and confute, but to weigh and consider.

Transition Words for Emphasis


Transitions are discussed in greater detail in the module on coordination and subordination. This module also includes a list of the most common subordinating conjunctions and their meanings.  In terms of emphasis, transitions can be quite effective.  They call attention to the relationship between ideas, making those relationships explicit. For this reason, too many subordinating conjunctions in a single paragraph can be distracting.  Use a subordinating conjunction to connect ideas when it is important that the reader focus on the relationship between those ideas.  Consider the paragraphs below, noting how logic is used to establish the connection between several sentences, and how subordinating conjunctions focus your attention on relationships with greater emphasis:

I do not claim, for a start, that every television commercial has religious content. Just as in church the pastor will sometimes call the congregation's attention to non-ecclesiastical matters, so there are television commercials that are entirely secular. Someone has something to sell; you are told what it is, where it can be obtained, and what it costs. Though these may be shrill and offensive, no doctrine is advanced and no theology invoked.

But the majority of important television commercials take the form of religious parables organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, they put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven. They also suggest what are the roots of evil and what are the obligations of the holy. ("The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar," Neil Postman, 1988)







1. Boldface, capitals & underlines

2. Commas & dashes

3. Exclamation points

4. Colons

5. Repetition & Parallel structure

6. Transition words

instructor English 365 Home my 365