Adding Emphasis in English – 3 Advanced Tricks

Adding Emphasis in English - 3 Advanced Tricks

You’re about to learn 3 ways to add emphasis in English. For more advanced English tips, check out Inversion with Negative Adverbials.

Here’s a common situation for high-level English learners.

You want to express something important.

You know how to express it — but the words aren’t enough.

You can’t express how easy something was.

Or how boring something is.

Or how much you don’t ever ever ever want to touch another frog’s eye again. Ever.

Disgusted child with a frog

So you repeat words (like “ever”) or you use pronunciation to emphasise your point. (“He’s soooooo lazy.”)

But these strategies are getting boring. They also feel a bit childish.

The solution here is to change the sentence structure.

There are some sentence structures in English that are perfect for making your point stronger.

Let’s take a look at them!

102 Little Drawings eBook

Adding Emphasis in English #1

“All I did was push this button.”

What does it mean?

This phrase simply means “I only pushed this button. That’s all!”

What’s the structure?

All I did was push this button.

How can I use it?

There are two different ways of using this phrase, so let’s look at two different types of people.

Remember Alexa from my lesson on positive personality adjectives?

The Good Worker

Alexa’s a great worker. She’s dynamic, motivated and, perhaps most importantly, when there’s a problem, she knows what to do.

How does Alexa solve problems?

Alexa solves problems with simple solutions.

Let me explain.

Imagine you’re with Alexa, and you’re cooking dinner. She’s just hanging out and chatting with you as you prepare the food.

But something’s not right.

It just doesn’t taste right and you don’t know why — you’ve been following the recipe, but it’s just not working.

Then as you’re looking at the recipe trying to work out what you did wrong, Alexa tastes the food and makes a simple change to it.

You taste it and it’s perfect. Alexa saved the food!

“But what did you do, Alexa?” you probably ask at this point.

Now Alexa could say “I only added some lemon juice,” but this doesn’t express how simple and beautiful the solution was.

It doesn’t express how important that word “only” is in this sentence.

So, to emphasise how simple the solution was, she can say:

It was easy! All I did was add some lemon juice.

We can use this phrase when we want to be like Alexa — solving problems. But solving problems easily.

Let’s take a look at another example

There’s also a more negative way of using this phrase.

That’s when we describe someone less like Alexa and more like Andy. Remember Andy?

Andy - Mr Slack

Andy is super lazy. He does nothing all the time.

We see Andy sitting in front of his laptop all day, and it annoys us! He’s sooooo lazy! Why doesn’t he do something with his life?

One day you’re talking to Alexa. She’s heard about Andy and asks you what he’s like.

So how do you describe him?

Well, we could just say “He’s really lazy. He only sits in front of his laptop all day.”

And that’s fine. But it just doesn’t express how lazy he is or how annoying his laziness is.

That’s when we change the structure of the sentence to make it stronger.

Andy? All he does is sit in front of his laptop all day!

Yeah — Andy’s really lazy.

Adding Emphasis in English #2

Only then did I understand what was going on.

What does it mean?

This simply means “I didn’t understand what was going on until then. And after that everything was clear.”

What’s the structure?

If you’re interested in grammatical terms (and I’m sure you love grammatical terms), this is called a negative adverbial.

These phrases are also very useful if you want to emphasise something negative.

The structure is simple:

Not once did he offer to help. (Adverbial phrase + question form)
Cliff Hanger by jess2284 | CC BY 2.0

The trick here is to make sure you use the question form after the adverbial.

Like this: “No way will he make the jump.”

Not this: “No way he’ll make the jump.”

Here’s a list of some of the more useful ones:

  • Only then …
  • Only now … (use the present tense)
  • Not once …
  • Never again … (use the future)
  • Never before … (use the present perfect or past perfect)
  • No way …

Let’s try transforming some sentences. (Remember, there’s more than one way to do this.)

“I understand it now, but I didn’t before” → “Only now do I understand.”

“I will never ever go there again.” → “Never again will I go there.”

“You just can’t do it. Never. No way. Not happening, mate. Don’t even think about it … NO!” → “No way can you do it!”

How can I use it?

So one day you go for a wonderful walk by the canal. The sun is shining, and the water looks so fresh and clean. You feel good about life.

Then you see this:

Elephant, gnome and acrobat

You start to wonder what the hell is going on.

You rub your eyes to make sure you’re not seeing things.

But there it is. That … madness.

You’re not sure whether you should call the police or run away.

Then you notice the camera. And another camera. And an entire film crew.

OK — you suddenly understand what’s happening. They’re making a film.

It looks like a pretty bad film, but that doesn’t matter anymore — you understand the situation.

A great little story to tell friends about later, right?

But how do you express it?

How do you express that one second you thought you were going mad and then suddenly, after seeing the cameras, you immediately understood. Everything changed.

This sudden and dramatic change can be expressed using a negative adverbial:

Only then did I understand what was going on.”

These adverbials often emphasise a sudden or dramatic change (“only then,” “only now,” “never before”) or a complete lack of something (“not once,” “no way”).

They’re strong!

Adding Emphasis in English #3

It was the butler who did it.

Butler standing in front of a body
Chalk outline by Ben Smith | CC BY 2.0

What does it mean?

You know when you want to emphasise a noun in a sentence, so you just emphasise the sound of the word?

“I can tell you who committed the murder … The butler did it.”

This is important news, right? Especially for the butler, who might or might not be on his way to the airport about now.

But it doesn’t feel dramatic enough. So we change the sentence structure to emphasise that noun. In this case, the subject: the butler.

What’s the structure?

It was the butler who did it.

How can I use it?

You usually use this structure to emphasise nouns in a sentence.

You can use it to emphasise the subject:

The butler did it.” → “It was the butler who did it.”

An object:

“Actually, I came to talk to you.” → “Actually, it was you who* I came to talk to.”

*Technically, this should be “whom,” but very few people use “whom” these days.

Or the “extra information”:

“I met her in Paris. Not Swansea.” → “It was Paris where I met her. Not Swansea.”

Just remember to use the right relative pronoun.

It could be a person:

“It was me who saved all the dolphins from the fire. Not him.”

A thing:

“It’s all the singing that makes me hate the film so much. And why do they have to dance all the time?”

Or a place:

“It’s the west part of town where he grew up, not the east.”

Notice that in three of the examples I added “not…” at the end.

That’s because these phrases are also used to correct someone or to make sure that no one has the wrong idea about something.

So there we are — you now know 3 ways to add emphasis in English to make your points even stronger.

Now over to you.

Can you make the following sentences more powerful?

  1. I did all the work — not him!
  2. He’d never met such an interesting person until that moment.
  3. My cat sleeps all day and nothing else.
  4. I just called her and asked her, and it worked.

Answer in the comments!

Good luck!

Did you find this useful? Do you know any people (or otters) that might also benefit from this? Then BE AWESOME AND SHARE! Spread the knowledge!

4 thoughts on “Adding Emphasis in English – 3 Advanced Tricks

  1. 1. It was I who did all the work, not him!
    2. Never before had he met such an interesting person until that moment
    3. All my cat does is sleep all day and nothing else
    4. All i did was call her and ask her, and it worked.

    1. 1. Yeah!
      2. Almost perfect! You don’t need to include “until that moment” because “never before” already carries that meaning.
      3. Fantastic! Again — you don’t need to add “nothing else.” Although you can if you like — it’s just a bit unnecessary.
      4. Awesome!

      Good work Eugene. I’m glad you’ve got these structures in the bag now! Keep up the good work!

  2. 1. It was me who did all the work – not him.
    2. Never before had I met such an interesting person.
    3. All my cat does is sleep all day.
    4. All I did is call and ask her.

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