home :: 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 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:
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:
Van HalenVan 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 3: Flush Left, Italicized, Uppercase and Lowercase Side Heading
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:
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.
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:
Repetition & Parallel Structure for Emphasis
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:
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:
Antithesis is the use of a contrast to define a subject. Used well, antithesis can be striking.
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:
1. Boldface, capitals & underlines
2. Commas & dashes
3. Exclamation points
5. Repetition & Parallel structure
6. Transition words