Emphasis

Where are you directing your readers' attention?



Introduction to Emphasis: Placement, Repetition, and Focus

The order in which we present words affects how readers perceive our sentences. We can shift the weight of a sentence, like shifting our weight from one foot to the other. Readers recognize this shift as emphasis.

A. After churning around for millions of years, stars can explode.

B. Stars can explode after churning around for millions of years.

In Sentence A, the main action ("stars can explode") appears late in the sentence. Sentence B privileges this information, while Sentence A instead emphasizes the amount of time ("millions of years") that passes before the action can occur.

Emphasis depends largely on the specific words or phrases we wish to highlight. Repetition is one example of emphasis. In "The Fellowship of the Ring," J. R. R. Tolkien writes:

A. "This is the Master-ring, the One Ring to rule them all."

The word "ring" is repeated only once, but this is enough to add special weight to the sentence. Repetition is one of the most direct and effective forms of emphasis. When overused, however, emphasis can make good sentences sound contrived or clumsy:

B. This ring is the Master-ring, the ring of rings, the One Ring to rule all rings.

We wouldn't call this effective emphasis — if anything, we would call it ridiculous. Emphasis must be selective, in the same way that highlighting specific phrases or keywords in a textbook is more useful than highlighting entire paragraphs.

By emphasizing specific parts of our sentences, we can engage our readers and direct them to important information. We use emphasis to preserve our distinctive voices in writing, making our points more vigorous, adding authorial presence, and capturing the attention of our readers.

Emphatic Syntax

You can arrange your words and phrases to draw attention to an important point without explicitly telling your readers what is significant. Emphatic syntax makes your sentences sound more forceful, and readers will appreciate prose that is deliberately crafted and concise.

BEGINNING WITH EMPHASIS

When you emphasize the beginning of your sentence, you capture readers' attention immediately. Long subjects can delay action, reducing the emphasis of your sentence. It is important to emphasize your topic — but sometimes, you can do so most effectively by placing it at the end of your sentence, rather than at the beginning.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Being the first person to arrive is so satisfying that there are few things like it. Being the first person to arrive allows you to get the best seat.

Revision:
There are few things so satisfying as being the first person to arrive. Being the first person to arrive allows you to get the best seat.

Explanation:
If we want to expand on an idea introduced in the first sentence ("being the first person to arrive") in the next sentence, we can transition by referring to the original phrase at the beginning of the second sentence.
If we add "there are" at the beginning of the first sentence, we can push the clause "being the first person to arrive" to the end of the sentence. As we read this sentence, expectation grows until we are told what is so satisfying.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Being the first person to arrive is most satisfying.

Revision:
What is most satisfying is being the first person to arrive.

Explanation:
When we begin a sentence with "what," we emphasize the word(s) after the linking verb (the first verb in the main clause). The linking verb "is" emphasizes the phrase "being the first person to arrive."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
That she drank the whole pot of coffee seemed improbable.

Revision:
It seemed improbable that she drank the whole pot of coffee.

Explanation:
By beginning the revision with "It," we reposition the long introductory clause after the main verb. Now, the verb ("seemed") appears at the beginning, making it easier for the reader to appreciate the point being made.

BEGINNING WITH FORCE

When you want to grab readers' attention, there's no better way than a direct command. By beginning sentences with imperatives, you demand that readers pay attention to what you're saying.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I would like you to imagine eating nothing but chocolate.

Revision:
Imagine eating nothing but chocolate.

Explanation:
We sound more confident when we begin a sentence with a command (an imperative). This confidence helps us establish a strong presence in our writing.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
If you may, decide which organization is more reputable.

Revision:
Decide which organization is more reputable.

Explanation:
If you may” weakens our authorial presence. The revised sentence sounds more confident and straightforward by beginning with the imperative, “decide.”

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
If you would like, please take a moment to analyze the trends evident in the graph.

Revision:
Analyze the trends evident in the graph.

Explanation:
If you would like to, please take a moment to analyze” does not carry the same emphatic force as simply requesting the reader to “analyze the trends evident in the graph.”

REPEATING STRATEGICALLY

Repetition is an excellent device for drawing your readers' focus to specific parts of your sentences. Sometimes, however, repetition can sound awkward or jarring, like a wrong note in music or fingernails on a chalkboard.

When you use a word toward the end of a sentence, and then repeat that word at the end of the sentence, the repetition will be likely be too close to be effective. Far from ending emphatically, your sentence will sound uncertain.

Unless you believe you achieve a desired rhetorical effect by using repetition in this way, you might consider reworking your sentence without this repetition. Doing so will likely enable you to end with greater emphatic effect.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I noticed that the whiteboard was dirty because no one had erased the whiteboard.

Revision:
I noticed that the whiteboard was dirty because no one had erased it.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, we emphasize "whiteboard" ineffectively: we only draw attention to the awkward repetition. The revision doesn't emphasize "whiteboard," but it is a cleaner sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
One day at the end of the fall when I was [in] the forest … I saw a cloud over the forest.

Revision:
One day at the end of the fall when I was out [in] the forest … I saw a cloud overhead.

Explanation:
The first sentence ends monotonously. No new word, no new sound is introduced. "Forest" isn't the highlight of the sentence and its repetition at the end detracts from the ominous mention of the cloud. Both versions present us with more or less identical information, yet the revision ends provocatively, asking us to consider the significance of the cloud rather than to fixate dully on the forest.

EXAMPLE 3:

There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain.

Explanation:
In this example, Hemingway repeats a word ("rains" and "rain"). Repeating a word in a sentence is by no means a bad thing. One way to avoid monotony is to ensure several words, and perhaps some phrases and clauses, separate the repeated words. Hemingway demonstrates that in this sentence, where he separates to two instances of the word with nineteen other words. This sort of repetition can even be an effective device for conveying your meaning. Hemingway describes a dismal image. It is entirely appropriate for such a sentence to end dully. The key to effective writing is to use repetition deliberately and with a particular intent.

RATIONING ADJECTIVES

Adjectives can be wonderful descriptive devices, but, if overused, they can make your writing cluttered and lethargic-sounding. As a general rule, adjectives are most effective if used alone — that is, not in conjunction with other adjectives. By using one, rather than two, adjectives, you are able to successfully focus attention on one detail rather than vaguely divide attention between the two.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The leafy, green tree fell down in the storm.

Revision:
The leafy tree fell down in the storm.

Explanation:
Excessive adjectives make a sentence sound cluttered. Adjectives are wonderful descriptive devices, but, like adverbs, are best used in moderation. Unless you need several adjectives, choose the more specific one and delete the other(s).

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The hot, viscous lava flowed slowly toward the coconut grove.

Revision:
The viscous lava flowed slowly toward the coconut grove.

Explanation:
“Viscous” specifically contributes to the reader’s understanding of the lava flowing “slowly.” In revising, we deleted the adjective “hot” because it does not make an important contribution to the reader’s understanding of the sentence. “Hot” is also unecesarry because high temperature is a well-known quality of lava.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The cake fell apart in its box because of its moist, crumbly texture.

Revision:
The cake fell apart in its box because of its crumbly texture.

Explanation:
The adjective “crumbly” leads to the outcome of the cake falling apart while the adjective “moist” only clutters the original sentence. By deleting “moist” we focus our reader’s attention on the informative detail of the cake being “crumbly.”

INVERTING PHRASES FOR EMPHASIS

The vast majority of sentences in English follow a similar pattern: 1) subject, 2) verb, 3) object or adjective. This order is standard and expected by readers.

When we invert this order, we surprise readers. We indicate to them that we want them to pay attention to whichever word we're privileging in the unconventional syntactical pattern.

For instance, when we begin a sentence with the verb rather than the subject, we draw attention to that verb. 

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
He ran toward the finish line quickly.

Revised:
Quickly, he ran toward the finish line.

Explanation:
This nonstandard phrasing presents the adverb first, thereby drawing our attention to “quickly.”

Similarly, when we begin a sentence with an object or adjective rather than the subject, we invert the expected order to highlight the object or adjective.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Anne found a book in her grandfather’s collection that contained the answer.

Revised:
A book Anne found in her grandfather’s collection contained the answer.

Explanation:
The non-standard placement of the direct object, “a book,” at the beginning of the phrase catches the reader’s attention and directs their focus to “a book.” Inversion also operates well here because we include a reason to pay attention to the word highlighted by this unconventional syntax.

EXAMPLE 3:

Stony is the clearing in the woods.

Explanation:
This example inverts the standard pattern of subject, verb, and adjective to emphasize “stony” – but the inversion, which might work well with more complex sentences, sounds awkward here.

EXAMPLE 4:

In the middle of the forest is a gingerbread cottage.

Explanation:
By placing the prepositional phrase at the sentence's beginning, we indicate that the place we describe is important.

EXAMPLE 5:

The dragon itself he killed with a magic arrow.

Explanation:
This sentence priviliges the direct object ("The dragon itself"), indicating to readers that the dragon is the topic, the most significant part of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 6:

Gone was the dragon, the wizard, and the thief, but the pile of gold remained.

Explanation:
This sentence places the predicate adjective "Gone" at the sentence's beginning, heightening the parallel between "Gone" and "remained."

Tone

In its simplest sense, tone refers to the quality or character of words. We talk about the tone of someone's voice: "she sounds happy" or "he sounded sad when he didn't get the job." The poet Robert Frost calls our ability to read and hear tone "the hearing imagination."

Tone is how you sound to your readers. While tone may vary depending on the context you describe and the effect you intend to convey, it remains an essential part of engaging the attention of your readers.

DESCRIBING SPEECH WITH ADVERBS

Adverbs are useful descriptive devices. Sometimes, however, an adverb can detract from the word or phrase it modifies by preemptively (and less effectively) saying the same thing. This is common when an adverb precedes the word "said."

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Accepting the trophy, the winner triumphantly said "I beat everyone else!"

Revision:
Accepting the trophy, the winner said "I beat everyone else!"

Explanation:
The adverb "triumphantly" is redundant because other words ("trophy," "winner," and what the winner says) already tell us that the winner is speaking triumphantly. Without "triumphantly," we show rather than tell readers of the his triumphant feelings.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Looking at the wall, Pyramus sweetly said, "I love you so much."

Revision:
Looking at the wall, Pyramus said, "I love you so much."

Explanation:
The adverb "sweetly" is redundant, since the reader can determine, from what Pyramus says, that he is speaking sweetly. We do not need to specify it.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Throwing his inedible soufflé in the garbage, the Chef despairingly said, “I wasted five hours cooking this mess.”

Revision:
Throwing his inedible souflé in the garbage, the Chef said, “I wasted five hours cooking this mess.”

Explanation:
The adjective “despairingly” is redundant because many components of the sentence already indicate a sense of despair: “throwing...in the garbage,” “inedible,” “wasted," and “mess.”

POSITIONING LONG CLAUSES

Sentences are easier to read if the subject and the verb are near the beginning. In practice, however, some ideas resist being arranged this way. A subject requiring added explanation or identification delays the verb and anything that follows. (The previous sentence illustrates this point!)

Sometimes, you can use short introductory clauses effectively. If you have a short clause at the end of your sentence, and you think that it would function well as an introductory clause (a dependent clause that provides context or sets the tone for the main clause), you can move it to the beginning of your sentence.

These suggestions reflect the principle of balance in writing. To offset a sentence from seeming overloaded at the beginning, you can position one or more short clauses there to help your readers orient themselves. Then, once your readers have settled into the sentence, you can unfold your ideas with longer clauses to underscore the point you're making.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
A long subject and superfluous adjectives may push the verb to the end of the sentence.

Revision:
The verb may be pushed to the end of the sentence by a long subject and superfluous adjectives.

Explanation:
This example highlights an effective use of the passive (rather than the active). By using the passive, we reposition the long clause at the end of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
To move this long phrase to the end of the sentence is most effective.

Revision:
It is most effective to move this long phrase to the end of the sentence.

Explanation:
Moving a long phrase to the end of a sentence often requires that we use an empty word (here, "it").

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Many writers, from professional writers to students, suffer from writers' block and procrastination, as you might know.

Revision:
As you might know, many writers, from professional writers to students, suffer from writers' block and procrastination.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, the short dependent clause "as you might know" is placed awkwardly at the end of the long main clause ("Many … procrastination"). Moved to the beginning of the sentence, the short clause has greater impact. The short clause provides context — it tells readers they may already know the point that follows. It also establishes a conversational tone, drawing readers into the sentence by addressing them directly ("you").

Ending with an Adjective or Adverb

Concluding a sentence with an adjective or adverb after a comma is a striking construction that emphasizes that descriptive detail.

This technique is most effective when used sparingly. When an author uses this technique multiple times in close proximity, he or she lessens its emphatic effect and causes the writing to sound overdone. 

Ideally, the adjective or adverb contributes significantly to the sentence’s meaning. 

EXAMPLE 1:

He slumped over in his chair, dead.

Explanation:
The location of the adjective, “dead,” at the end of the sentence after a comma, informs the reader that it significantly contributes to the sentence’s meaning.

EXAMPLE 2:

They had met just moments before, but when she smiled at him, he fell in love, utterly.

EXAMPLE 3:

Viktor Frankenstein’s monster slowly opened its yellow eyes, alive.

Emphatic Repetition

When we repeat a word or phrase, we draw special attention to it. We impress upon our readers that this word is important, that this word warrants repetition. Repeated words demand readers attention — not obviously, but through sheer persistence.

To repeat an important word or phrase with emphasis, we can use any of several techniques. Each is simpler than its name suggests.

BEGINNING WITH THE SAME WORD

Beginning two adjacent sentences with the same word indicates that the repeated word is particularly important. You can use this technique to signify topics or simply draw attention to a recurring theme in your sentences. An emphatic beginning captures readers' attention.

Bear in mind, however, that this technique can make your sentences sound repetitive. When you use this technique deliberately and thoughtfully, you'll use it successfully to emphasize ideas, actions, or topics in your prose. When you use it ineffectively, this technique may make your writing sound monotonous or thoughtless.

EXAMPLE 1:

Metaphor affords rich comparisons that keep the reader’s imagination active, as when Hamlet describes his misfortune in physical terms, as “slings and arrows.” Metaphor helps readers understand the unique perspectives of the different characters.

Explanation:
Repeating "metaphor" at the beginning of the following sentence emphasizes its importance and draws attention to its complex role. Also, because the first sentence is long, it is appropriate to begin the second sentence with “metaphor” instead of the pronoun "it."

EXAMPLE 2:

The blade of grass is adorned with morning dew. It shimmers in the golden light.

Explanation:
Here, we did not begin the second sentence with “The blade of grass” because we don't feel it's a topic that requires emphasis. The author decides if the subject has enough gravity and purpose to warrant emphasis. The author then decides if using the pronoun “it” would understate the subject.

EXAMPLE 3:

"Now is the winter of our discontent /Made glorious summer by this son of York; /And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house /In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. /Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths, /Our bruised arms hung up for monuments, /Our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings, /Our dreadful marches to delightful measures" (Shakespeare).

Explanation:
Here, Shakespeare uses the same word ("Now") to begin the two opening sentences of his play, ensuring that he captures listeners attention.(Note that he adds to this effect by repeating a word ("our") at the beginning of the clauses within these sentences.)

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
The wildfire is a manifestation of his rage. The wildfire and its destructive force signal his capability to inflict widespread damage.

Revision:
A manifestation of his rage, the wildfire and its destructive force signal his capability to inflict widespread damage.

Explanation:
In the first version of these sentences, both begin with the same subject ("The wildfire"). This repetition is ineffective: it serves no clear purpose and unnecessarily lengthens the phrase. The revision remedies this by turning the first sentence into an appositive phrase and eliminating the awkward repetition.

ENDING WITH THE SAME WORD

Ending two adjacent sentences with the same word brings that word to your readers' attention.

Most writing is linear. One sentence makes point A, the second makes point B, the third point C, and so on. Writing progresses from one idea to another as it develops and explains ideas or actions. 

When you end two adjacent sentences with the same word, you don't allow your readers to progress beyond that repeated word, reminding your readers of its importance at the conclusion of each sentence. An emphatic ending echoes in readers' heads long after they turn the page.

When you use this device, you navigate the fine line between emphasis and monotony. This device can be invaluable when you wish to direct your readers' attention to a particular action or idea. But if you repeat a word you don't want to emphasize, you may confuse your readers by directing their attention to an unimportant word.

EXAMPLE 1:

You create a pleasantly repetitive sequence of sounds by repeating words. You add force to this sentence when you repeat words.

Explanation:
“Words” is an appropriate term to emphasize because it serves a clear, important purpose. We conclude two adjacent sentences with “words” to remind our readers of the subject’s importance.

EXAMPLE 2:

Alejandro said it was amazing. Alejandro often says things are amazing.

Explanation:
Here, we use the same word to begin both sentences.

EXAMPLE 3:

"If thou has any sound, or use of voice, /Speak to me. If there be any good thing to be done, /That may to thee do ease, and grace to me, /Speak to me" (Shakespeare).

Explanation:
Shakespeare ends both sentences with the same phrase ("Speak to me"). This repetition ties the two sentences together.

REPEATING WITH ALLITERATION

Alliteration occurs when you employ the same sound to begin two or more words that are in relatively close proximity. This repetition creates a pleasant sequence of sounds that adds emphasis and deliberation to your sentence. 

You can use alliteration to do more than simply write pleasant sounding prose. It adds direction and power to your sentences – using alliteration, you can guide readers to particular ideas or actions.

EXAMPLE 1:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" (Martin Luther King).

Explanation:
The repeated c sound adds textual complexity to this phrase thereby making it more moving and engaging. Alliteration emphasizes “color,” “content,” and “character.”

EXAMPLE 2:

The acrobats awed their audience.

Explanation:
The repeated vowel sound of the letter “a” is an instance of assonance. Assonance, a subset of alliteration, is the repetition of the same or similar vowels in a sequence of nearby words. The repeated “a” sound emphasizes the words “acrobats,” “awed,” and “audience” and creates a sense of unity.

EXAMPLE 3:

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you” (John F. Kennedy).

Explanation:
The alliteration artfully aids the reader in understanding the elevated importance of the “high standards of strength and sacrifice.”

EXAMPLE 4:

"One man in his time plays many parts" (Shakespeare).

Explanation:
The author uses two words that begin with the same sound.

EXAMPLE 5:

"You'll be rotten ere you be half ripe" (Shakespeare).

Explanation:
Here, the comparison is emphasized because the things being compared begin with the same sound.

REPEATING WITH ANAPHORA

We can repeat the same word or phrase at the beginning of several clauses or sentences. This creates a sense of continuity through your ideas, and inclines your readers' focus toward the repeated word or phrase.

EXAMPLE 1:

"In every cry of every man, in every infant's cry of fear, in every voice, in every ban, the mind forged manacles I hear" (William Blake).

Explanation:
Each phrase but the last begins with "in every."

EXAMPLE 2:

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces/ After the frosty silence in the gardens/ After the agony in stony places
(T.S. Eliot)

EXAMPLE 3:

And art made tongue-tied by authority,/ And folly--doctor-like--controlling skill,/ And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,/ And captive good attending captain ill
(William Shakespeare)

REPEATING WITH POLYPTOTON

We can repeat the root form of a word in different contexts. This draws attention to all instances of the root even as it allows us to play on any variations between the meanings of the different words.

EXAMPLE 1:

"Who will watch the watchmen?" (Juvenal)

Explanation:
The writer repeats the root form of a word ("watch"). This asks the reader to consider the alternative meanings of the repeated word. Watchmen are supposed to watch — but, the writer implies, they also need to be watched.

EXAMPLE 2:

Love is not love/ Which alters when it alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover to remove
(William Shakespeare)

Explanation:
Shakespeare employs polyptoton by using distinct forms of two different words: “alters” and “alteration,” “remover” and “remove.” This repetition emphasizes the immutability of genuine love.

EXAMPLE 3:

"When a man has learned how to learn, he can learn any thing."
(Henry Kingsley)

REPEATING WITH PARALIPSIS

We can draw attention to something by pretending to dismiss it, but referring to it enough times that readers are compelled to notice it.

EXAMPLE 1:

"We will not speak of all Queequeg's peculiarities here; how he eschewed coffee and hot rolls, and applied his undivided attention to beefsteaks, done rare" (Herman Melville).

Explanation:
The writer draws attention to what he "will not" mention — Queequeg's peculiarities.

EXAMPLE 2:

He is a devoted political activist, not to mention an influential community leader.

Explanation:
Somewhat ironically, the phrase “not to mention” compels our readers to pay particular attention to the detail we specifically said we would not mention: his being “an influential community leader.”

EXAMPLE 3:

The new supervisor seems to be capable, though I won’t mention his awful temper.

Explanation:
I won’t mention” directs the reader to pay attention to the supervisor’s “awful temper.”

USING APPOSITIVE REPETITION

We can write a noun or noun phrase, followed by another noun or noun phrase that repeats a word or words from the first. This device, called appositive repetition, establishes continuity through your phrases and clauses, while emphasizing the repeated word.

EXAMPLE 1:

He stole the book, the book that was used to teach math for decades.

Explanation:
We emphasize the word "book" through appositive repetition. Repeating "book" introduces a clause describing the first use of the word.

REPEATING DELIBERATELY

In writing, we sometimes repeat words unintentionally.

In some cases, we repeat words for emphasis: "I had had a headache before I took an aspirin." You can usually revise these sentences to eliminate the repeated word: "I had a headache before I took an aspirin."

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The water stopped working after after the pipes broke.

Revision:
The water stopped working after the pipes broke.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, we unintentionally repeated "after." To revise, we delete one of the repetitions.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
I was hungry because I had had no breakfast.

Revision:
I was hungry because I had eaten no breakfast.

Explanation:
Repeating "had" is grammatically correct: "had had" is the past perfect tense of "have." But the repetition sounds clumsy. To revise, we replaced the second instance of "had" with a verb more specific to this context ("eaten").

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The museum curator told me that that painting is worth millions of dollars.

Revision:
The museum curator told me that the Picasso painting is worth millions of dollars.

Explanation:
The phrasing “that that” is awkward and distracts the reader from the subject of the sentence. In revising, we make our point more emphatic by replacing “told me that that” with "told me that the Picasso painting."

BALANCING NOUN PHRASES

When you define a word or phrase in terms of itself, this recursive definition may create a more nuanced definition of the term than would a more linear definition. 

By defining a word or phrase in terms of itself, you emphasize the repeated material while developing your line of thought by playing off any subtle differences of meaning between the identical terms. You can use definitions such as this to simply emphasize a word or phrase, to reinforce your argument, to make a persuasive appeal, or to enlarge your meaning.

EXAMPLE 1:
Gold is gold.

Explanation:
Here, the subject “gold” boasts a freedom from external description. Unlike the phrase “Gold is shiny,” “Gold is gold” offers no descriptor. With no adjective, the author does not add to the idea of gold. By unexpectedly using a noun to describe itself, the author emphasizes the subject of “gold” and unfolds a deeper meaning of the subject. This recursive definition also relies on its readers: they may add further dimensions to the subject of “gold.”

EXAMPLE 2:
A jealous friend is a bad friend.

Explanation:
This sentence balances and equates two types of friends through repetition. This repetition follows an "a b = c b" format. In these noun phrases, the adjective modifying the noun ("jealous" and "bad") changes, but the noun remains the same.

EXAMPLE 3:
The start of spring is the start of life.

Explanation:
This sentence balances the two noun phrases through structured repetition. This repetition follows an "a of b = a of c" format.

EXAMPLE 4:
David is David.

Explanation:
This repetition of the noun "David" establishes David's identity as independent of outside definition.

EXAMPLE 5:
Fair is fair.

Explanation:
This sentence uses repetition to define the word "fair" in terms of itself. This definition wouldn't be much use to someone not already aware of the word's meaning, but it does serve to emphasize that "fairness" is not changable or up for discussion. Note that this repetition employs different grammatical forms of the word: the first "fair" is a noun, the second a predicate adjective.

Linking Noun Phrases

These sentences firmly establish the topic with the first word, then use a simple, unobtrusive linking verb to transition to a second, more descriptive noun phrase. Such sentences make excellent definitions, statements, or declarations, since they tend to be short, snappy, and definitive.

EXAMPLE 1:
"War remains the decisive human failure" (John Kenneth Galbraith).

Explanation:
Here, Galbraith begins with his topic, "war," then employs the linking verb "remains" to transition to his second, descriptive noun phrase, "the decisive human failure."

EXAMPLE 2:
Orchids are the most difficult indoor plants.

Explanation:
This sentence begins with a topic, "orchids," uses the linking verb "are," and ends with a noun phrase with two adjectives, "the most difficult indoor plants."

EXAMPLE 3:
That is my favorite horror story.

Explanation:
This sentence emphasizes the topic by introducing it in the first noun clause, then describing it in the second noun clause.

Emphatic Transitions

Whenever we speak or write, we string together ideas using devices such as conjunctions. But while conjunctions are an essential building block of any prose, they can also be crafted to convey different nuances and implications of meaning.

COORDINATING SEQUENCES

The conjunctions "and" and "but" are logically equivalent. "And" indicates cohesion, while "but" indicates contradiction. One can be substituted for the other without changing the grammatical sentence of a sentence. However, the implications of the sentence will change substantially.

"Or" and "unless" are logically equivalent and can be interchanged without affecting the grammatical structure of a sentence. Yet they, too, have different implications: "or" connotes equality, while "unless" suggests an alternative.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
She wants to leave and she insists on staying.

Revision:
She wants to leave but she insists on staying.

Explanation:
The first sentence doesn't acknowledge the contradiction of someone's staying when she wants to leave. The revision uses a different conjunction to emphasize this contradiction.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
She will walk to the park or go to the movies.

Revision:
She will walk to the park unless she goes to the movies.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, "or" presents two equal options. The second sentence uses "unless" to introduce a new, conditional element. Whether or not the walk to the park will happen depends on whether or not she goes to the movies. Neither version is superior — we should use whichever best suits our meaning.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
He brought bread but also milk at the store.

Revision:
He bought bread and also milk at the store.

Explanation:
Both sentences make sense grammatically, but their implications differ.

OMITTING CONJUNCTIONS WITH ASYNDETON

Conjunctions are important parts of speech. They allow us to connect multiple pieces of information and present it to readers in a straightforward manner. Conjunctions allow readers to pause, to catch their breath before reading the next item in a list.

Sometimes, however, you can omit a conjunction to speed up the pace of your sentence, thereby emphasizing the ideas being conveyed. This forces readers to keep reading, allowing you to complete a train of thought smoothly and without hesitation. This device, called asyndeton, can make your writing sound spontaneous.

It is best to use this strategy deliberately and precisely. The very thing that makes asyndeton so effective – its seeming spontaneity – also makes it dangerous. There is a fine line between spontaneous writing and unedited writing.

Asyndeton often lends itself to strategic use. Authors place asyndeton where it will have the greatest dramatic effect and where they would like to speed up their prose. However, if overused, asyndeton’s effect is less successful. For example, omitting conjunctions from all sentences in a paragraph may lead your readers to think your work is unedited or that you forgot rather than deliberately omitted conjunctions.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I came, I saw, and I conquered.

Revised:
“I came, I saw, I conquered” (Caesar).

Explanation:
With the conjunction, this sentence lacks the quick rhythm afforded by asyndeton. Caesar's punchy phrase omits the conjunction "and" to imply that his conquest was as quick and efficient as his sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
...we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, and oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Revised:
"...we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" (John F. Kennedy).

Explanation:
Omitting "and" emphasizes the urgency of the task at hand: assuring the survival and success of liberty.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
We must... hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, as Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

Revised:
"We must... hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends" (United States Declaration of Independence).

Explanation:
By omitting "as," Jefferson makes his point immediate and memorable.

Old and New Information

There's a delicate balance between overwhelming your readers with unfamiliar information and boring them with stuff they already know. When should you repeat old information? When should you tell your readers something new?

Knowing your audience is an important part of achieving this balance. But there are also a variety of techniques you can employ to help you decide when to repeat information, and when to introduce new information.


Introducing New Terms

The Short Version

Begin your sentences with familiar terms or concepts and introduce new terms toward the end.

The Long Version

Readers may be confused when a sentence starts with unfamiliar terms. Your sentences will be clearer if you begin with familiar words and then introduce new words toward the end. If we are confident that our readers already know the terms we wish to use, then positioning these terms at the beginning of the sentence will not affect the substance and direction of the sentence.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Surplus value, a term coined by Marx in his nineteenth century analysis of capitalism and the economy, a value attaching to merchandise, is also known as profit.

Revision:
In his nineteenth century analysis of capitalism and the economy, Marx described profit as a value attaching to merchandise and defined it as surplus value.

Explanation:
In the first sentence, we introduced the new term ("surplus value"), explained the concept behind it, and ended by defining it with a familiar word ("profit"). To revise, we began with "profit," explained the concept, and then introduced the new term.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
"I take culture to be a web: man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun" (misquoted from Geertz).

Revision:
"Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun[;] I take culture to be those webs" (Geertz).

Explanation:
In the first version of this sentence, Geertz introduces the idea of culture as a web at the sentence's beginning, then explains and expands on this idea — essentially defining the term ("culture") he'd introduced at the beginning. The revision reverses this order, beginning by explaining the idea of webs of significance and introducing the term "culture" only at the sentence's end.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Alliteration, the repetition of letter sounds in close proximity, includes two subsets: Assonance and Consonance.

Revision:
Alliteration, the repetition of letter sounds in close proximity, includes two subsets. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds, while consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds.

INTRODUCING NEW INFORMATION

The Short Version

Open your sentences with familiar information and introduce unfamiliar information toward the end.

The Long Version

When you introduce new information to your readers, we suggest you start the sentence with information they are familiar with, perhaps something you have told them in previous sentences. This strategy allows you to transition from one topic to the next without losing your reader along the way.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The steam powered rotary press made it possible to print on an industrial scale. This invention revolutionized what and how people read, rather than simply increasing sales.

Revision:
The steam powered rotary press made it possible to print on an industrial scale. Rather than simply increasing sales, this invention revolutionized what and how people read.

Explanation:
The first example begins its second sentence by telling readers something new. The revision instead begins by revisiting a topic already presented to readers, before introducing new information.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Leach goes on to argue that the idea of closed communities results in an "artificial fragmentation of humanity" (9). Because "group membership is not a matter of empirical fact but of self perception," this fragmentation is artificial (10).

Revision:
Leach goes on to argue that the idea of closed communities results in an "artificial fragmentation of humanity." This fragmentation is artificial because "group membership is not a matter of empirical fact but of self perception."

Explanation:
The first sentence ends by introducing the idea of an "artificial fragmentation." The second sentence further explains this idea. In the first version of these sentences, we present refer to the idea that "this fragmentation is artificial" only at the end of the sentence. Because of this, readers won't know that the second sentence refers to this concept until they finish reading, and instead of trying to understand the explanation itself, they'll be trying to understand what it's explaining. The second version remedies this by beginning the second sentence with the same information that ended the first sentence.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Beach cliffs are often riddled with holes called tafoni weathering.

Revision:
Beach cliffs are often riddled with holes that result from weathering. These holes, called tafoni weathering, result from wind-driven sand particles boring holes into the rock.

Repeating Old Information

The Short Version

To make two sentences more cohesive, begin the second with a word you used to end the first.

The Long Version

You can make consecutive sentences more cohesive by starting the second with the words you used to end the first. By repeating information in this way, you give your readers something familiar to latch onto before you move on to something new.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
In front of them was the central valley. Across the valley, on the next mountain, sat a turtle.

Explanation:
Here, the second sentence begins by mentioning the "valley," a topic which was introduced at the end of the first sentence.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
First, they ate dessert. After eating dessert, they ate dinner.

Explanation:
We can establish the context for the second sentence by starting it with the information we introduced at the end of the first.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Breakfast is better with coffee. And coffee is better with milk.

Explanation:
The idea of "coffee" connects these two sentences.

Opening with Adverbs

The Short Version

Start your sentence with an adverb you used in the previous sentence.

The Long Version

By starting a sentence with an adverb you used in the previous sentence, you create a sense of repeated or similar actions. This technique can make your sentences cohere, and can also add a pleasantly repetitive rhythm to your prose.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Leaves drifted through the open door. Through the windows came a breeze.

Explanation:
By repeating the adverb "through" at the beginning of the second sentence, we connect the second sentence to the first.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
They ran quickly across campus. Quickly they ran into the classroom.

Explanation:
By using "quickly" to describe the action in both sentences, we can make both cohere.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The flood came after the rains. After the flood came summer.

Explanation:
Here, the adverb "after" describes the passage of time, an effect which is heightened when we repeat it to open the second sentence.

Review

  • Emphasize the topic of a sentence by placing it at the beginning
  • Begin a sentence with an imperative to grab the attention of your readers
  • Use repetition to strategically draw attention to a word or subject
  • When describing a single noun, use one adjective instead of two to make your prose descriptive without weighing it down
  • Invert the standard order of a sentence to engage your readers
  • Trim adverbs unnecessarily modifying the verb "said"
  • Balance your sentences by positioning long closes toward the end, helping readers more quickly understand your meaning
  • Add descriptive emphasis to a sentence by ending with an adjective or an adverb
  • Choose from a number of rhetorical strategies when repeating deliberately in your prose, while avoiding accidental repetition
  • Manage transitions in your sentences by choosing when to include conjunctions and when to omit them