A Short Quiz About Emphasis

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, there is a deviation from one of the conventions about how to convey emphasis in writing. Identify the error, and then check below for corrected versions followed by explanations.

1. “So-called ‘notification laws’ require businesses to notify customers when certain unencrypted customer data is improperly accessed.”

2. “Thus the question is not one of quality, but of quantity.”

3. “I suppose this was the moment when I was supposed to experience a sensation of ‘being one with the universe,’ but I just wasn’t feeling it.”

4. “With a strident vigor that arrested the attention of all present, she shouted, ‘YOU JUST DON’T GET IT, DO YOU?’”

5. “After seeing this movie, I just have one thing to say: ‘I want those two hours of my life back!!!’”

Answers

1. “So-called notification laws require businesses to notify customers when certain unencrypted customer data is improperly accessed.”

Explanation: Quotation marks employed to highlight a word or phrase, known as scare quotes, are almost invariably unnecessary, and are redundant to the phrase so-called. (Note that in the previous sentence, I didn’t enclose the introduced slang term “scare quotes” — as I explained, these quotation marks are superfluous. However, I did use quotation marks around the phrase in this parenthesis, just as I italicized so-called above — and here — because that’s how open phrases and words or hyphenated phrases, respectively, are styled when used as names of concepts rather than as the concepts themselves.)

2. “Thus the question is not one of quality, but of quantity.”

Explanation: Italicization of key words can be appropriate but is often overused. Use your judgment to determine whether your point needs such emphasis or whether you can rely on readers to get it without special treatment of words. Usually, they will, and if you doubt it, perhaps your point needs to be expressed more clearly.

3. “I suppose this was the moment when I was supposed to experience a sensation of Being One with the Universe, but I just wasn’t feeling it.”

Explanation: Using quotation marks in this case isn’t necessarily the wrong approach, and it’s appropriate if someone — a guru, for instance — previously used these words, but if the intent is mockery, sarcasm, or irony, it may not be effective. Using headline-style initial capital letters is the conventional approach for conveying such a tone.

4. “With a strident vigor that arrested the attention of all present, she shouted, ‘You just don’t get it, do you!’”

Explanation: Except in display copy (headlines, headings, and the like), using all capital letters is an awkward distraction. Let the narrative carry the emphasis; note that in the sample sentence, thanks to the expressive description in the introductory phrase, the quotation could even get by with a question mark alone (though, because it’s a rhetorical question, the exclamation point is suitable).

5. “After seeing this movie, I just have one thing to say: ‘I want those two hours of my life back.’”

Explanation: Again, let the narrative do the work. Multiple exclamation points have no place in writing, except to mimic a hormone-addled adolescent. And avoid even single exclamation points; usually, they’re extraneous, and if they’re not, they’re probably a crutch for inexpressive writing. Isn’t the deadpan tone implied by the lack of an exclamation point in the sample sentence above more effective than the impotent peevishness that an exclamation point would suggest?

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7 Responses to “A Short Quiz About Emphasis”

  • angie sargenti

    You’re so right about the second, that italics are over-used. But I always use them anyway, in the first couple of drafts, and then I go back and take almost all of them out later. Unless I’m writing from a teenager’s POV, of course, where I want the reader to hear it that way.

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    I’d be interested in seeing one of the rare instances of an effective exclamation point, as it seems to me that _completely_ avoiding any standard punctuation mark diminishes expressive power. (By the way, would you say that, here, italicizing “completely” is warranted or superfluous?)

  • Todd

    First of all, I have to say I am so glad to have stumbled across this web site that I visit almost every weekday. I love it!

    I agree with every point above, and yet I used an exclamation point anyway. Go figure.

    My old writer’s critique group would pounce on any fiction writer who used an exclamation point on the first page of a story, or more than once in a chapter. I have heard several times that a publisher will often stop reading any fiction submission that contains an exclamation point on the first page. Perhaps it is true, perhaps not, but they are often seen as an indication of an inexperienced or inexpressive writer.

    I enjoyed the Q&A style of today’s article. Thanks.

  • Marji Laine

    Love the quiz and I got almost all of them right. I thought about hyphenating the one with the universe thing.

    I confess, I do use italics in my fiction, but not to tell the reader how to read my words. I use the format for deep thoughts and written material–texts, notes, etc.

    Invaluable site!

  • TheSongFrog

    Perhaps you overlooked Emphasis by Capitalization, which is rampant in in high-tech industries and perhaps many others.

    I also would like to mention that sentence #2 is a good example of failed parallelism. It should read either:

    “Thus the question is not one of quality, but one of quantity.”

    or

    “Thus the question is one not of quality, but of quantity.”

  • James

    Your points about “[letting] the narrative do the work” are well taken. It’s something I try, and often fail, to express to my students – let precise wording and proper introduction to quotes do the work, not exclamation points and needless capitalization.

  • Mike McDaniel

    This sentence has an additional problem: “So-called ‘notification laws’ require businesses to notify customers when certain unencrypted customer data is improperly accessed.”

    “data” is plural. Data as a noun would need “are” as the verb.

    Best wishes

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