are an important source of emphasis. A special class called intensives do nothing but stress the term they modify: great, greatly, extremely, much, very, terribly, awfully, and many, many more. But on the whole intensives are not very satisfactory. They quickly become devalued, leading to a never-ending search for fresh words. Imaginative writers can and do discover unusual and effective ones, as in this description of the modern superstate:

These moloch gods, these monstrous states . . . Susanne K. Langer

Still it is best not to rely upon intensives as a primary device of emphasis.

Pairing and Piling Modifiers

As we shall see in a few pages, adjectives and adverbs can be made emphatic by where they are placed and how they are punctuated. But aside from that, they may be paired and piled up (that is, grouped in units of two or of three or more). Here are a few instances of paired modifiers:

They [a man's children] are his for a brief and passing season.

Margaret Mead

This antiquated and indefensible notion that young people have no rights until they are twenty-one . .. Evelyn Jones

[Lady Mary Wortley Montague was like] a dilapidated macaw with a hard, piercing laugh, mirthless and joyless, with a few unimaginative phrases, with a parrot's powers of observation and a parrot's hard and poisonous bite. Edith Sitwell

Working as a team, paired adjectives impress themselves upon the reader. And they often do more, reinforcing a point by restatement ("a brief and passing season") or suggesting subtle contrasts and of meaning, as sentence leads us to think about the distinction between "mirth" and "joy" and about how a laugh can be both "hard" and "piercing."

Adjectives may also be accumulated in groups of three or more; as in this description of an family:

... a wilful, clannish, hard-drinking, fornicating tribe.

William Gibson

Or this one of a neighbor taking a singing lesson:

A vile beastly rottenheaded foolbegotten brazenthroated pernicious piggish screaming, roaring, perplexing, crashmegiggle insane ass is practicing howling below-stairs with a brute of a singingmaster so horribly, that my head is nearly off. Edmund Lear

Passages like these, especially the second, are virtuoso performances in which exaggeration becomes its own end. Of course, exposition cannot indulge itself like this very often. But sobriety needs relief, and verbal exuberance dazzles and delights. Whatever may be the objective truth of such fusillades of modifiers, they bring us into startling contact with the thoughts and feelings of the is the essence of communication.


Two positions in a clause or sentence are more emphatic than any opening and the closing. Elsewhere emphasis must depend on inversion, isolation, modification, restatement, and so forth. (Of course these techniques may work in harness with positioning to give even greater strength to opening and closing words.)

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:

Great blobs of rain fall. Rumble of thunder. Lightning streaking blue on the building. J. P. Donleavy

Donleavy's sentences mirror the immediacy of the experience, going at once to what dominates his heavy feel of rain, thunder, lightning. (The two fragments also enhance the forcefulness of the passage.)

Beginning (or ending) with the principal idea is geous in developing a contrast, which is strengthened if the following clause or sentence opens with the opposing term:

Science was traditionally aristocratic, speculative, intellectual in intent; technology was lower-class, empirical, action-oriented.

Lynn White, jr.

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 danger of lunacy. Susanne Langer

Like the opening position, the closing is also useful for reinforcing contrasts and

We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did was

"illegal." Martin Luther King, Jr.

But Marx was not only a social scientist; he was a reformer.

Inexperienced writers often waste the final position. Consider, for instance, how much more effective is the revision of this statement:

As the military power of Kafiristan increases, so too does the pride that Dravot has.

REVISION: AS the military power of Kafiristan increases, so too does Dravot's pride.

In topic sentences, finally, the closing position is often reserved for the idea the paragraph will develop (if it can be done without awkwardness). Here, for instance, is the opening sentence of a paragraph about Welsh Christianity:

The third legacy of the Romans was Welsh Christianity.

George Macaulay Trevelyan


An isolated word or phrase is cut off by punctuation. It can occur anywhere in the sentence but is most most the beginning or end, positions, as we have seen, emphatic in themselves:

Leibnitz, it has sometimes been said, was the last man to know everything. Colin Cherry

Children, curled in little balls, slept on straw scattered on wagon beds. Sherwood Anderson

If the King notified his pleasure that a briefless lawyer should be made a judge or that a libertine baronet should be made a peer, the gravest counsellors, after a little murmuring, submitted.

Thomas Babington Macaulay

And then, you will recall, he [Henry Thoreau] told of being present at the auction of a deacon's effects and of noticing, among the innumerable odds and ends representing the accumulation of a lifetime, a dried tapeworm. E. B. white

It is also possible to use both ends of a sentence. See how neatly this sentence isolates and emphasizes the two key terms "position" and "difficult":

The position—if poets must have positions, other than upright—of the poet born in Wales or of Welsh parentage and writing his poems in English is today made by many people unnecessarily, and trivially, difficult. Dylan Thomas

Isolating a word or phrase in the middle of the sentence is less common but by no means rare:

was late for had forgotten my homework. Emily Brown

Whether the isolated expression comes first, last, or in between, it must be set off by commas, dashes, or a colon. (As isolating marks, colons never go around words within a sentence; usually they precede something at the end, though they may also follow an initial word.) Generally, dashes mark a longer pause than commas and hence imply stronger stress: began to rain" emphasizes the adverb a little more than does "Suddenly, it began to rain." A colon before a closing term is stronger than a comma, but about the same as a dash.

Isolation involves more, however, than just punctuating a word or phrase you wish to emphasize. The isolation must occur at a place allowed by the conventions of English gram mar. In the following sentence "Harry" may properly be split from its verb and isolated by an intruding adverbial phrase:

Harry, it was clear, was not the man for the job.

But it would be un-English arbitrarily to place a comma between "Harry" and the verb:

Harry, was not the man for the job.

The emphasis gained by emphasis in gen-

more than merely add strength to particular words: it conveys nuances of meaning. Suppose, for instance, that the sentence by Macaulay quoted above were to end like this:

... the gravest counsellors submitted, after a little murmuring.

The words are the same and the grammar and the logic, but not the implications. Macaulay, while admitting that the counsellors of Charles II occasionally protested, stresses their submissiveness; the revision, while acknowledging that they submitted, makes their protest more important. In short, the two sentences evaluate the king's ministers differently.

As one example of how isolation can endow a word with special meaning, read this sentence by Lewis Thomas:

There was a quarter-page advertisement in The London Observer for a computer service that will enmesh your name in an electronic network of fifty thousand other names, sort out your tastes, preferences, habits, and deepest desires and match them up with opposite numbers, and retrieve for you, within a matter of seconds, friends.


A balanced sentence (see pages 128 ff.) divides into roughly equal parts on either side of a central pause. Usually the pause is marked by a comma or other stop, though now and then it may be unpunctuated. The halves of a balanced sentence are often independent clauses, but sometimes one will be a dependent clause or even a long phrase. In any case, the two parts must be roughly the same in length and of comparable significance, although they need not be of the same grammatical order.

In balanced construction words are stressed by being positioned so that they are played against one another:

It is a sort of cold extravagance; and it has made him all his enemies. C. K. Chesterton

Till he had a wife he could do nothing; and when he had a wife he did whatever she chose. Thomas Babington Macaulay

Chesterton draws our attention to the connection between a "cold extravagance" and making "enemies." Macaulay, playing "do nothing" against "did whatever she chose," comments wryly on the freedom of the married man.

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Project Management Made Easy

Project Management Made Easy

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