Understanding Emphasis

For the purpose of this discussion, think of a basic sentence in terms of three points of emphasis: the beginning, the middle, and the ending. By placing information appropriately in each part of the sentence, you increase the chances of your readers understanding and retaining the information and ideas you present. In general, you want to begin with context and known information and then present important, new information at the end of the sentence. The following figure portrays the relative degree of emphasis readers usually accord to each part of a sentence.

The Beginning (subjects)
 - tell us what the sentence is about, qualify the sentence, or relate back to a previous idea.

The beginnings of sentences do not receive much emphasis, but serve an important function by providing the reader with context and connection. The beginnings of sentences guide readers by reinforcing a sense of order and connection. They connect what is to come with what came before and also provide the context needed to understand the new information at the end of the sentence.

For example, the subject identifies who or what the sentence is about. The addition of certain pronouns (this problem, that situation, those events) can reinforce the connection with previous sentences. Transitional words (however, therefore, furthermore, next) can further signal how a sentence relates to the previous one. Introductory phases (In most cases, Until the 1980s, Under ideal conditions) may also provide context and set limitations. Consequently, while the beginnings of sentences may not receive much emphasis, they are essential, providing the known information and the connections necessary for readers to make sense of what they read.

The Middle (verbs)
 - explain the relationship between the beginning and the end of the sentence.

The middle of the sentence consists of the verb, which achieves a certain degree of emphasis simply because it tells the reader what is happening. Without the verb, a reader has no idea what the subject of a sentence is doing or, for that matter, what the sentence means. The verb tells us how the beginning and ending of a sentence relate, allowing readers to interpret our meanings. In fact, we can sometimes omit the subject or the object in a sentence and it will still make sense: Construct bridges! Engineers construct. However, if the verb is omitted, a sentence lacks meaning (i.e., Engineers bridges). If the verb is omitted, what do readers think the engineer is doing in relation to bridges? Inspecting them? Designing them? Planning them? Supervising the building of them? Simply admiring them?>

The Endings (objects)
 - provide new or important information.

In general, reading is least difficult and content most easily remembered when the most important or the new information is placed at the ends of sentences. Therefore, a well-structured sentence should move readers toward the completion of a thought. As a somewhat exaggerated example, consider what happens when reading a mystery novel, Suspense is generated. We want to know who done it? -- but not until the end of the book. Similarly, most sentences should end with the new information, with what readers do not know and are waiting to find out.

The end of a sentence also provides information needed to understand the next sentence. That is, the new information in one sentence may become the context for the following one. New information becomes known information, providing the context for more new information.

When our sentences are well-ordered, with the point of most emphasis at the end, readers can easily keep the context and connection between ideas in mind and retain essential information in short-term memory. The longer information is retained in the reader's mind, the more emphasized it becomes (which, by the way, is also a good reason for repeating important information several times in a document).

Start Exercise

Click on the "Start" button below to begin the Style Exercise for Order & Emphasis. Note that this exercise has four sections: Empty & Weak Sentence Openers, Embedded Phrases, Weak Endings, and Passive Voice. After you have completed exercise questions from each section, click on the "Continue" button to advance to the next section. Good luck and have fun!