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Emphasis and Consistency in English Grammar

Use this online guide to gramatical emphasis and consistency for elementary, middle school, high school and college students and teachers to learn and understand the importance and rules of emphasis and consistency in English grammar.



Emphasis | Consistency | Variety


It is frequently desirable to emphasize an entire sentence, or a single word or a group of words within a sentence. Without the use of emphasis, writing is flat and uninteresting.

Sentence Arrangement

To give prominence to an entire sentence, place it at either the beginning or end of the paragraph.

The roads were hot and dusty. The grass in the meadows was burned to a parched golden brown. Cattle in dried-up river bottoms licked hopefully at gravel and rocks where water had always been before. It had not rained for weeks, and there would be no rain for two more weeks to come.

Word Emphasis

To give emphasis to single words or groups of words, pay attention to the arrangement of the order of the words as they occur in the sentence. Words at the beginning and end of a sentence are likely to attract more attention than words in the middle. Words or phrases placed out their usual or expected positions also call attention to themselves.

In normal English word order, for example, adjectives precede the nouns they modify. Reversing this order calls particular attention to the adjectives.

          The tired old judge slumped on the bench.

          The judge, old and tired, slumped on the bench.

In normal word order the flow of a sentence moves from the subject to the verb and concludes with words related to the verb.

          John and Barbara were married on a sunny day in May.

          [subject]                  [verb]         [adverbial modifiers]

The statement is clear, but no part of it is emphasized because the order of the words is exactly what the reader expects. To give prominence to adverbial modifiers, place them at the beginning of the sentence. To emphasize the date, recast the sentence to read:

          In May, John and Barbara were married on a sunny day.

To emphasize both the weather and the date, revise the sentence to read:

          On a sunny day in May, John and Barbara were married.

Notice how the abnormal word order of this sentence calls attention to the entire sentence and makes it more interesting and emphatic. Journalism employs the technique of altering word order to place special emphasis at the beginning the lead sentence of a news story.

The same principle applies to the position of single words in the sentence.

          He drew himself to attention smartly.

          Smartly he drew himself to attention.

In some sentences, a telling a dramatic effect can be achieved by completely reversing normal word order.

          The men marched into battle.

          Into the battle marched the men.

CAUTION: Do not try to recast every sentence, or even the majority of sentences, to secure emphasis. Such a procedure defeats its own purpose by producing an effect of strained and artificial writing.

Repetitive Emphasis

When a word or phrase is repeated immediately or soon after its original use, the reader is certain to notice the repetition. Deliberate repetition, therefore, is a certain method for obtaining emphasis, and it creates a dramatic effect.

          His father was weak, his sister was weak, and he was weak.

          ...that government of the people, by the people, for the people...

Voice Emphasis

The choice of active or passive voice should depend on which element of the sentence is to be emphasized. In a typical sentence containing a transitive verb, such as:

          John owns a horse.

The use of the active voice emphasizes John's ownership. If the statement is intended to answer a question about the horse, it should be place in the passive voice:

          The horse is owned by John.

In general, if there is no particular problem of emphasis, the active voice is preferable since it is more direct and gives a stronger effect.

Flat and Lively Writing

To give a flat and lifeless effect to writing, the simplest device is to use only simple and compound sentences in normal word order. Writers often do this deliberately to create a pallid atmosphere:

          He went into the house. He looked around listlessly for a few minutes and then slumped into a chair. No sound was heard except the ticking of the clock. He rested his head on the back of the chair and gradually fell into a deep and profound sleep.


He walked slowly into the house, feeling fatigue gather like a knot behind his neck as he slumped into the armchair. Silence spread around him, broken only by the tick ticking of a clock, pounding inside his head like the beats of a metronome--a pulse of blood in his temples. Gradually a rhythm would form, feeling fatigue gather like a knot behind his neck as he slumped into the armchair. Silence spread around him, broken only by the tick ticking of a clock, pounding inside his head like the beats of a metronome--a pulse of blood in his temples. Gradually a rhythm would form to seduce him into a troubled sleep.

But to indicate distinctions between ideas of greater and lesser importance, place the lesser words and phrases in subordinate positions in the sentence. In the following sentence, nothing is emphasized, and the entire statement is flat:

          New York City is on the East Coast, and it is America's largest seaport.

To stress the location of New York City, recast the sentence as follows:

          New York City, which is America's largest seaport, is on the East Coast.

To stress the importance of New York City as a seaport, rewrite the sentence.

          New York City, which is on the East Coast, is America's largest seaport.

Parallelism and Balance

Two or more ideas that are similar in nature are known as parallel ideas. For effective presentation, express them in parallel form: a noun should be paralleled with a noun, an infinitive with an infinitive, and so on.

          They studied history, mathematics, and chemistry.

          NOT PARALLEL
          They studied about the past, mathematics, and how matter is constituted.

          He learned to swim, to play tennis, and to ride a horse.

          NOT PARALLEL
          He learned to play, tennis, swimming, and the art of horseback riding.


In dealing with any subject, decide in advance on the method of treating the subject and then endeavor to be consistent.


When writing a narrative, decide on a basic tense and do not change it unless the reference to some prior or subsequent event demands a change.

John sprang to his feet when he heard the whistle. He ran as fast as he could to reach the upper deck. There he sees a battleship bearing down on the. [Inconsistent change to present tense]


When discussing a type or a class, decide in advance whether to use the singular or plural number, and do not change it.

The automatic washing machine is a great invention. It saves homemakers many hours of drudgery. These machines are among the most wonderful inventions of the twentieth century.

The automatic washing machine is a great invention. It saves the homemaker many hours of drudgery. This machine is one of the most wonderful inventions of the twentieth century.


Decide in advance whether a piece of writing is to be personal or impersonal, and do not change the point of view.

When learning to play a piano, the student should remember that great care and precision are essential. You should practice simple pieces until they are completely mastered.

In this paragraph, the you in the second sentence should be changed to he or she.


Unless you wish to jar the reader by some sudden intrusion, keep the tone and level of writing constant. Informal or chatty writing admits the use of slang or colloquialisms that are out of keeping with formal writing. Notice the absurdity of the following:

          The dean exhorted the statutory members of the faculty to redouble their efforts and get going.

          I get sick and tired of hearing you squawk about your lassitude.


The type of sentence structure appropriate to a given piece of writing depends on the nature of the subject, the purpose of the author, and the anticipated audience. Directions, for example, should be written in simple language and short sentences.

To reach the Denby Road Church:
1. Follow Route 4 to Carmine Street.
2. Turn right and continue to the second traffic signal (Denby Road).
3. Turn left on Denby Road.
4. You will see the church on the right-hand side of the street.

Short, direct sentences are also effective in describing action.

          The guard raised his gun. He fired. The prisoner's body jerked. Blood poured from the hole in his forehead.

Long wandering sentences create their own moods.

          The clouds lay along the horizon in a soft white stream as the sun went down and the sky filled with purple light.

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