Using Word Order for Emphasis


There are several ways to add emphasis (focus) to parts of your sentences in English by changing the word order. When you have a good understanding of the basic sentence structure in English, you can learn to move parts of a sentence to add emphasis to a certain part of the sentence.

See also in this series on sentence structure and word order:

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All English Tenses

Click Here for Step-by-Step Rules, Stories and Exercises to Practice All Tenses


This is the standard word order for English sentences:
 
Subject + Verb + Direct Object
 
He bought flowers.

man with flowers
 
You can extend this sentence with more parts of speech.
 
Subject  + Verb + Direct Object + Indirect Object + Prepositional Phrase
 
He bought flowers for his wife on Mother’s Day.

 
There are a few ways you can change the word order in standard sentences to add emphasis or focus to a certain part of the 
sentence. In this lesson, we will learn some of the ways to add emphasis in sentences in English.
 
Skip to a topic:

Passive Voice

Moving the Time

Inversions

Auxiliary Verbs

Introductory Adverbs

Moving Parts of Speech

Cleft Sentences


Passive voice

In English, the beginning of a sentence usually gets more focus or emphasis. That means the focus is usually on the subject and what the subject does (verb).

By using passive voice, you can emphasize what happens to something or someone rather than telling who or what did it. The focus is on the action or result.
 
Most sentences are written in the active voice. In the active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action.
 
The ball hit the window.

Nick threw the ball.

broken window
 
In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is affected by the action.
 
The window was hit by the ball.

The ball was thrown by Nick.
 
Active voice is more common than passive voice in English. You can use the passive voice when you want to tell about an action, but you don’t want to tell who or what does the action.
 
Jim broke the window.

This sentence is in active voice. It is clear who broke the window. Jim broke the window.
 
The window was broken.

This sentence is in passive voice. This 
sentence describes the action without telling who did it. The emphasis is on the action NOT on who did the action.
 
Another use of passive voice is when you want to emphasize the object and not the 
subject.
 
Tim lost the dog.

(emphasis = Tim)


This sentence is in active voice. Here the emphasis is on Tim losing the dog.
 
The dog was lost.

(emphasis = the dog)


This sentence is in passive voice. The object became the subject. Here, the emphasis is on the fact that the dog was lost.
 
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Moving the time 

English adverb time phrases and clauses can be placed at the beginning of a sentence to add emphasis to the time.

Less emphasis

I finished my exam right before class ended.
 
More emphasis

Right before class ended, I finished my exam.

boy studying
 
Less emphasis

The alarm rang at 6:00 a.m.
 
More emphasis

At 6:00 a.m., the alarm rang.

man in bed

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Invert the word order (Inversions)

To invert = to reverse
 
Another way to add emphasis is by inverting the word order of a sentence by placing a prepositional phrase or another expression at the beginning of the 
sentence followed by inverted word order.
 
Inversion means you reverse the normal word order of a sentence. Instead of Subject + Verb, we might add an auxiliary (helping) verb before the subject. We do this in English to form questions.
 
  • She runs.

    Subject
    + Verb

  •  Does she run?

    Auxiliary Verb
    Subject + Verb

  • He can drive.

    Subject
    Auxiliary Verb + Verb

  • Can he drive?

    Auxiliary Verb
     + Subject + Verb
 

Negative adverbs + inversion

In formal English, you can place a negative adverb or adverb phrase in front of the inversion for emphasis.
 
Negative adverbs: hardly, never, seldom, rarely, no sooner, not only, nowhere, in no way, never before
 
Less emphasis

I have never witnessed such disrespect!
 
More emphasis

Never have I witnessed such disrespect!

girl teasing a boy  

Less emphasis

I have rarely seen such beautiful colors.
 
More emphasis

Rarely have I seen such beautiful colors.

flowers  

Less emphasis

I have seldom experienced such terrible service.
 
More emphasis

Seldom have I experienced such terrible service.

angry man
 
Less emphasis

I arrived home and was called back into work.
 
More emphasis

No sooner had I arrived home than I was called back into work.

man running  

Less emphasis

I haven’t seen such bad driving anywhere.

More emphasis

Nowhere have I seen such bad driving!

man driving a car  


Less emphasis

I do not agree with what she is saying in any way.
 
More emphasis

In no way do I agree with what she is saying.

woman talking to a man
 

You can use different tenses in the same way.
 
Nowhere have I seen such bad driving! (present)

Nowhere had I seen such bad driving! (past perfect)
 

Never have I witnessed such disrespect. (present)

Never had I witnessed such disrespect. (past perfect)
 

Here and there + inversion

You can also add emphasis by beginning a sentence with here or there followed by an inversion.
 
There goes the taxi!

 
There is the bus stop.

 
Here comes the storm.

 
Here is your tea.
 
 

Expressions beginning with no / not / only + inversion

We can also begin a sentence with not/no/only + prepositional phrase followed by an inversion.
 
No sooner, in no way, not until, not for a moment, only when
 
Less emphasis

I got home and realized I forgot my shoes.
 
More emphasis

Not until I got home did I realize I forgot my shoes.

shoes
Less emphasis

I do not regret marrying you for a moment.
 
More emphasis

Not for a moment do I regret marrying you.

 wedding


Less emphasis

I believed he was safe when I saw him.
 
More emphasis

Not until I saw him did I believe he was safe.

man hugging a boy

 
Less emphasis

Your electricity will be turned back on when you pay your bills.
 
More emphasis

Only when you pay your bills will your electricity be turned back on.

woman sitting in the dark

 
Less emphasis

He realized he forgot to feed his dog when he saw her dog.
 
More emphasis

Only when he saw her dog did her realize he forgot to feed his dog.

dog

 
Less emphasis

He was not responsible for the accident.
 
More emphasis

In no way was he responsible for the accident.

car crash

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Adding auxiliary verbs

We can add emphatic auxiliary verbs before the main verb to stress a strong feeling.
 
Less emphasis

She looks pretty in that dress.
 
More emphasis

She does look pretty in that dress.

lady in dress
 

Less emphasis

I enjoyed my visit to the United States.
 
More emphasis

I did enjoy my visit to the United States.

man on plane

 
Less emphasis

His English improved!
 
More emphasis

His English has improved!

boy
 

We can also use this type of 
sentence with a tag question to confirm something we think is true.
 
She does like cats, doesn’t she?
 
Tom did say he's allergic to peanuts, didn't he?
 
You did clean the kitchen, didn’t you?
 
Mary has called you, hasn’t she?
 
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Introductory adverbs and phrases 

If you want to add emphasis to key facts or phrases, you use introductory adverbs or phrases such as especially, particularly, above all, remarkably, and most importantly.
 
 
Less emphasis

They survived, most importantly.
 
More emphasis

Most importantly, they survived.

broken car
 

Less emphasis

He still loves babies remarkably.
 
More emphasis

Remarkably, he still loves babies.



crying baby

 

Less emphasis

I love you above all.
 
More emphasis

Above all, I love you.

man proposing to a woman

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Moving parts of speech

You can also add emphasis to parts of a sentence by moving certain parts of speech.
 
Some adverbs can be placed at the front of a sentence to add emphasis.
 
Less emphasis

We usually see him at the store.
 
More emphasis

Usually, we see him at the store.


 
Less emphasis

He carefully carried the glass bowl.
 
More emphasis

Carefully, he carried the glass bowl.


 
Less emphasis

That is obviously the wrong key.
 
More emphasis

Obviously, that is the wrong key.


 
Less emphasis

You will find the classroom upstairs.
 
More emphasis

Upstairs, you will find the classroom.


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Cleft sentences

Cleft sentences help us focus on a certain part of a sentence to add emphasis to what we want to say.
 
Cleft comes from the verb to cleave meaning to divide into two.
 
Cleft sentences are divided into two clauses. Each clause has its own verb.
 
This is the basic pattern of a cleft sentence:
 
It + be verb + subject, object, etc + that / who relative clause
 
It wasn’t the boys who started the fight.

It wasn’t the boys that started the fight.

(The boys didn’t start the fight. Someone else did.)
 
It is the secretary that I wish to thank.

(I want to thank the secretary.)

 
Modal verbs can also be used in cleft sentences.
 
Less emphasis

You might have heard my phone ringing.
 
More emphasis

It might be my phone that you heard ringing.

phone
 

Less emphasis

His mother must have taught him how to grow sunflowers.
 
More emphasis

It must have been his mother who taught him how to grow sunflowers.

lady with flowers
 

 
Pseudo cleft sentences
 
In pseudo-cleft sentences, the emphasis is usually at the end of the sentence.
 
What clause + be verb + emphasized word or phrase
 
Less emphasis

I need a cup of tea now.
 
More emphasis

What I need now is a cup of tea.

man with empty cup
 

Less emphasis

I always notice a person’s smile.
 
More emphasis

What I always notice is a person’s smile.

man smiling
 

Less emphasis

My family is really important to me.
 
More emphasis

What’s really important to me is my family.

woman and son

 
Less emphasis

He was trying to earn your respect
 
More emphasis

What he was trying to do was earn your respect.

man at desk
 
Go to this lesson to learn more about cleft sentences: Cleft Sentences.

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