Taking the Stress Test: how emphasis can change meaning

One of the hardest things to grasp when learning the English language is emphasis. Emphasising a different word in the same sentence, each time can completely change the meaning of it. Some people make the emphasis on a certain word very clear. This can give you the general feeling of the sentence.

Other times it can be harder to pick up the meaning of a sentence and this can lead to you misinterpreting what the speaker means. Emphasis is normally used when someone wants to convey how he or she feels about something; this could be something they feel emotional about.

For example my mum could say to me ‘you’re not doing that tomorrow’.

This could be her checking with me ‘you’re not doing that tomorrow?’ implying that I am, or might be doing it on a different day. However, it is more likely that she is saying to me ‘you are not doing that tomorrow!’ – using this emphasis would make it clear to me that there is no chance I will be doing whatever I wanted to do tomorrow.

Emphasis is used by:

  • Stretching out the vowel sound.
  • Pausing after the word that is being emphasised is spoken.
  • Speaking slower when saying the word they want to emphasise.
  • The first syllable is pronounced louder than the other syllables.

Try emphasising a different word in this sentence each time you say it.


‘She isn’t flying to Hawaii tomorrow’

  • By emphasising the ‘she’ it implies that it is someone else that is flying to Hawaii tomorrow.
  • The ‘isn’t’ shows that she’s not doing this anymore.
  • Emphasising the ‘flying’ means that she’s not flying, she may be getting there another way instead.
  • ‘To’ this could mean she is flying from or by Hawaii not to.
  • Emphasis on Hawaii shows that it could be a different location, not Hawaii.
  • Finally, ‘tomorrow’ could mean that it’s actually a different day, not tomorrow.

Isn’t it strange how one sentence can be used in so many different ways?



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