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  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

Signaling Emphasis and Emotion in English and Turkish Writing

Updated: 6 days ago

Intonational Phrases

Our statements tend to follow the same intonational contours when we mean the same thing, with intonation referring to the rising and the lowering of one's voice tone (or pitch) when speaking.

We communicate by breaking our messages into intonational phrases. Each intonational phrase conveys a specific piece of information, which we express using distinctive patterns of pitches, stresses, pauses, and specific ordering of words in a sentence.

For example, when we want to signal a complete thought, our voice pitch drops (falling intonation), as in a declarative statement. On the other hand, a rising in our voice signals that we have not yet completed out thoughts or that we are asking someone to complete the thought, meaning that we are asking a question (rising intonation).

Painting "Riders Crossing the Desert" by Jean-Léon Gérôme
"Riders Crossing the Desert" by Jean-Léon Gérôme

In both English and Turkish, we use our voice tone (or pitch) to convey the meaning of our utterances, and both languages distinguish between three main intonation contours:

In English:

Falling tone: complete thoughts, wh-questions (who, which, where, when, why, and how)

Rising tone: yes/no questions

Fall-rise tone: incomplete thoughts, implicational statements

In Turkish:

Slight rise-fall tone: complete thoughts

High rise-fall tone: yes/no questions (questions with )

Slight rise + fall-rise tone: incomplete thoughts, wh-questions (ne, nerede, ne zaman, neden, kim)


Falling Tone

After a falling tone, the rest of the information unit is at a low pitch, as in complete statements. Roughly speaking, the falling tone expresses certainty, completeness, independence. So, a straightforward statement normally ends with a failing tone, since it asserts a fact of which the speaker is certain and which the speaker does not expect to continue discussing. The falling tone has an air of finality (with the focuses shown in CAPS):

⭧ ⬊ ⭧ ⬊

Akşam evDE olacağız. Yardıma ihtiyaCIM var.

🠢 ⭨ 🠢 ⭨

We will be home in the EVening. I need HElp.


Rising Tone (English) vs. Rise-Fall Tone (Turkish)

A rising tone expresses uncertainty or incompleteness or dependence. After a rising tone, the rest of the information unit moves in an upward pitch direction, as in questions that are answered with yes or no (the so-called yes/no questions), expressed with in Turkish.

Yes/No Questions

The rising tone signals that the speaker is uncertain of the truth of what they are asking about, and that he or she is seeking a categorical response of either yes or no.

In English, a yes/no question has a rising tone till the end:

⮕ ⬈ ⮕ ⬈

Are we there yet? Have you asked her about it?

The Turkish speaker expresses a yes/no question as a question with mi, with the high rising pitch until reaching the boundary before , after which the speaker's voice dramatically falls. This happens because is a prestressing clitic, i.e., it generates stress for the preceding constituent:

⮕ ⬈ ⬊ ⮕ ⬈ ⬊

Henüz VARmadık mı? Bunu ona sorDUN mu?

With its high, rising pitch, the yes/no question is the most imposing on the addressee. To downplay the imposition, we often rephrase such questions by using a hedging device or a minimizer. In both languages, such strategy involves rephrasing by adding something to change its intonational contour of the sentence.

For example, in English, we could rephrase it by adding the softening please, a comment clause (I wonder, I suppose, etc.), or an endearing term if the relations are familiar (baby, honey, love):

⬈ ⭨ ⮕ ⬈ ⮕

Are we there yet, I wonder? Can you help me, please?

In Turkish, the best strategy is to add at the end of the yes/no question an adverb or a special expression, such as acaba, yoksa, or bakalım to mitigate the interrogative force of the question by potential harshness, as the English equivalent I wonder:

⮕ ⬈ ⬊ ⭎ ⮕ ⬈ ⬊ ⭎

Dersini zamanında bitirebileCEK misin, bakalım. Bana özel bir indirim yapabiLIR misiniz, acaba?

Well, let’s see if you can finish your homework on time. I wonder if you could give me a special discount.

By using bakalım, the speaker includes herself in the addressee.

👆 These expressions are added as afterthoughts, not as backgrounded elements, which is why they can be emphasized and bear an emotive enough force to counterbalance the strength of the yes/no question.



An English statement pronounced with a rising tone at the end is understood as a question, signaled by a question mark in writing. The Turkish counterpart, however, follows a high rise-fall tone:

⭧ ⮕ ⬈ ⬈ ⬊

So, you got it right? Demek doğru anladın?


Topic Shifting

Shifting from one topic to another may have a rising intonation to signal initiation of a conversation:

⬈ ⭧ ⬈ ⭧ 🠢

As for my health, I can show you the necessary certificates. Sağlığıma gelince, gerekli raporları gösterebilirim.


Parenthetical Comment

Introductory parenthetical and supplementary part of a statement is also often spoken with a rising tone. The reason is that this information is incomplete and dependent on the main clause:

⬈ ⬈

If you like, we can have dinner at my place tonight. İsterseniz bu akşam benim evimde yemek yiyebiliriz.

Parenthetical comments in other positions are marked by low-key pitch in both languages:

⭨ ⭨

The kids (I'm sure of this) will not agree to it. Çocuklar, (bundan eminim) buna katılmayacak.


Politeness Device

Polite denials, commands, invitations, greetings, farewells, etc., are generally spoken with a rising tone:

A: Are you busy?

B: No. Come in.

Pronouncing no with rising tone would make it sound softer, more attentive, inviting.


Politeness Device: Tag Questions

Adding a tag question to a command turns them into polite requests:

Shut the door, will you?


Fall-Rise Tone (English) & Slight Rise + Fall-Rise Tone (Turkish)

In English, by making a statement with the fall-rise, the speaker typically states one thing but implies something further. Linguists call this tone the implicational fall-rise. The unexpressed implication can usually be formulated in a clause beginning but ..., which would make it explicit. The implicational fall-rise can be thought of as the tone that signals a but ... to come.

A: What a nasty cold day!

↘ ⭧

B: It's certainly cold [implied: l but I wouldn't say nasty].


The English fall-rise can also be used to signal that the speaker is tentative about what he or she says. This is another case of the implicational fall-rise when the speaker makes a statement but implies that he or she is not sure or that he or she doesn't want to commit:

A: What shall we have to drink?

↘ ⭧

B: We could have a red wine, maybe.


In English, if we think someone has made a mistake, and we want to correct them, we use the fall-rise for polite corrections:

A: They are coming on Monday.

↘ ⭧

B: No, on Tuesday, sir.


The English fall-rise is often used when we want to make a partial statement; that is, to say that something applies partly, to some extent, but not completely:

A: So you both live in London?

B: She does [implied: But I don't].



The Turkish intonation pattern for wh-questions follows a slight rise and then a fall-rise, while English wh-questions match a falling tone:

⭧ ⭨ ⭧

Eve NE zaman gideceksiniz?

⭧ ⭨

When are you going home?


As you may have noticed, the boundaries of intonational phrases are often aligned with shifts in the pitch tone. A fall-rise tone, signalling incompleteness and dependency, often occurs at the boundaries of incomplete phrases to signal that something else is coming: for example, in subordinate clauses (adverbial and conditional clauses) in complex sentences and in all but the last items in a series. A falling tone signals completeness and independence: marks the boundaries of independent clauses in compound sentences.

In Turkish, as the example below shows, a long sentence may have many intonational phrases (nine in the sentence below); a number of topics (three below: biz, biz, düşünmemiz, shown with ꜱᴍᴀʟʟ ᴄᴀᴘꜱ) or topic shiters (one below: Kant’a göreyse) (which bear secondary stresses); focused positions (bearing primary stresses, shown with CAPS), and other stressed positions of semantically emphasized words (tam, her, yani, shown with ꜱᴍᴀʟʟ ᴄᴀᴘꜱ):

T(shift)↘ ⭧ ↘ ⭧ ↘T 🠢 F ⭨ ↘ T ⭧ 🠢 F

Kant’a görEYse, | ᴛᴀᴍ tersine, | ʙɪᴢ, | objelere nitelikLER yükleriz; | çünkü ʙɪᴢ | bu biçimDE düşünürüz; |

For Kant, on the contrary, we think in such a way that we attribute qualities to objects, that whatever we think about,

T ↘ ⭧ 🠢 F

çünkü ᴅüşüɴᴍᴇᴍɪᴢ | ʜᴇʀ yerde öznelerle yüklemler oluşturmaya, | ʏᴀɴɪ zihnimizin bu formlarını kullanmaYA çalışır.

we are inclined to accompany subjects with predicates, and that out way of thinking is adapted to the forms of our minds.

Dil Felsefesi

Old Information & New Information

In a conversation, we tend to start statements with some old or given information (something that we have already mentioned before or assume to be known) and end with new or the most important information.

In conversations, we use pitch-intonation, stresses, pauses, and different word orders to signal the start and the end of an intonational phrase as well as the constituent of the phrase that we want to emphasize. In speech, using intonation, we can also distinguish new information from older information.

With old, or given, information, we communicate our topic, which often coincides with the subject of the sentence and involves a mild (secondary) stress. The new information consists of the sentence’s focus, which is its most emphasized constituent, marked with the heaviest (primary) stress.


Main Stress Positions

Whether it is English or Turkish, regular statements in each language follow a language-specific natural stress pattern, consisting of the following main stress positions: topic (T), focus (F), and background (B).

Topic (Old)

In both English and Turkish, topics are positioned at the beginning of the sentence. In English, which is a subject-prominent language, topics and subjects almost always coincide. In Turkish, which can be subject- and topic-prominent, topics can be any constituent: subjects, objects, complements, adverbials, etc.

The topic in a sentence tends to represent some old information, which connects to what has already been discussed. Topics are essential for maintaining cohesive and context-tied communication. In spoken regular sentences, to announce the start of a sentence and to signal what the sentence is about, the sentence-initial topic is mildly stressed (often receiving the secondary stress).

For example, the word kız, for the first time mentioned in the first sentence, becomes the topic of the second sentence:

Sadece evin kızı hastabakıcı kursuna girmişti. Kız, (T) onu gülümseyerek karşıladı.

The daughter of the family had simply begun a nursing course. The girl greeted him with a smile.

Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar, Huzur


Focus (New)

The sentence’s most prominent position, the focus, conveys something new, which is often the main point of the sentence.

While the English focus is positioned at the very end the sentence, the Turkish focus is positioned immediately before the verb. For example, compare the natural stress patterns in English and Turkish (with the focus shown in CAPS):

Kız kardeşim, evine TRENLE gitti.


My sister went home by TRAIN.


Depending on the context, the topic and focus positions can also signal contrastive topic (c-T) and/or contrastive focus (c-F), and contrastive stressing, which receives the heaviest stress, tends to be complemented by the de-emphasized backgrounding.


Background (Given)

In addition to old and new information, there is also given or presupposed information that is assumed to be shared by most of us, the historical truths that we feel are universal and axiomatic. As such, the presupposed information is regarded by the speaker as a given truth, or something that is so self-evident that requires no additional intonational effort. The boundaries of the backgrounded part are markedly de-stressed and low pitch, reflecting the speaker's switching to the energy-saving mode of de-emphasizing.

Thus, the common ways to indicate givenness include:

  • De-stressing, which is an acoustic reduction in intonation.

  • Ellison (omission), an extreme form of reduction.


Backgrounding in English

In English, stress often marks the difference between given and new information: speakers clearly emphasize any new or important details, balancing them off by de-stressing the presupposed details:

“Is this your lizard?”

“NO, not THAT [lizard], THE OTHER [one].”

c-F c-T B c-F B

In English writing, backgrounding can also be exhibited in special focusing constructions such as it-cleft or wh-cleft sentences:

“I’ve heard she left by bus.”

“NO, it was BY TRAIN [that she left].”

c-F T c-F B

Backgrounding in Turkish

In Turkish, any constituent placed after the verb loses its prominence. The most frequently backgrounded element, whether in speech or writing, is the explicit topic/subject.

The main reasons for that are these:

  • Topics can be easily inferred from the context, so to save intonational effort, speakers opt to move them to the intonationally de-emphasized area.

  • Bringing the sentence-initial, context-inferable topic/subject closer to the verb makes the sentence easier to process, especially if the sentence is long and the topic and the predicate are separated by many constituents.

Some other reasons may be:

  • Shifting stressing positions within a sentence.

  • Reducing the number of stress positions in sentences with other additional focusing devices, such as pre-stressing clitics or focusing adverbs.

  • Creating a rhythmic structure, used in poetry, songs, drama.

For example, in the exchange below, the backgrounded topic/subject (o) shifts the adverbial (trenle) to the contrastive focal position:

Kız kardeşin otobüsle mi gitti?

YOK, TRENLE [gitti, o].”

c-F B

“Did your sister left by bus?”

“NO, she left by TRAIN.”

c-F T c-F

Neutral (Unmarked) Sentences

Regular, or canonical, statements are neutral in their tone, with the topic and focus being only mildly stressed. What’s convenient about regular statements is their universal neutrality: whether they are spoken or written, both listeners and readers will process them by following the same natural stress pattern.

This is why regular, neutral statements are used in academic and formal writing, or as an opening sentence of an essay, presentation, or conversation.


Emphatic (Marked) Sentences

When we get emotional, however, we do not want to appear or sound neutral; we want to appear partial because we want to convey something important by emphasizing it.

In speech, we may emphasize a constituent by pronouncing it with a higher pitch or a stronger stress; we may precede or follow it by a dramatic pause; or we may change the ordering of words in the statement altogether. In writing, however, our options are limited.

Apart from word order variations and special grammatical structures, punctuation is the ultimate, purely graphical way of organizing the written text, including indicating the stress positions, highlighting the emphasized elements, and signalling emotional undertones.


Emphasizing and Emotion-Marking Strategies in English

Despite its strict word order, English uses several emphatic constructions of specific word orders, which have specific stress positions or cause such positions to shift. It also uses focusing adverbs, punctuation, and other stylistic techniques developed specifically for writing that are used to convey emphasis (shown in CAPs below) and emotion, including:

  • Word order variations, with specific stress positions: declaratives, questions, imperatives, exclamations, clefts, passives, inverted sentences, fronted-object sentences, fragments

  • Use of conjunctions: asyndetic, syndetic, polysyndetic series

  • Focus markers: only, just, even, very, the most

  • Rhetorical adverbs: in short, at last

  • Discourse connectives: however, therefore

  • Linguistic politeness markers: formality markers, hedges, softners, familiarity markers, formulaic expressions

  • Reduplications: asyndetic and syndetic repeations

  • Interjections & Exclamations: oh, oops, wow, ew, ouch, ugh

  • Punctuation: exclamation point, question mark, dash, suspension points, etc.


All languages appear to have special sentence structures associated with statements that provide information (declarative sentences), questions that seek information (interrogative sentences), and directives that instruct with information (imperative sentences), and many languages have a special sentence structure for exclamations that signal the emotional reactions (exclamatory sentences). Such structures are largely based on special word orders, and, in combination with the particular punctuation, they can convey the meaning intended by the author:

I have quickly finished reading this fun book. I have quickly finished reading this fun book!

Have you quickly finished reading this fun book? Have you quickly finished reading this fun book?!

Quickly finish reading this fun book! Quickly finish reading this fun book.

How quickly I have finished reading this fun book! How quickly I have finished reading this fun book.


In English, it-cleft structures have a fixed focus position, marking the delayed subject; wh-cleft structures are used to emphasize the predicate:

It is YOU [that] I love. What we need is MORE TIME.

(S) F B T F

Anticipatory it and existential there fill the syntactic subject position, drawing attention to the predicative, which is actually the delayed subject. Such structures are often used with indefinite noun phrases, commonly associated with new information:


(S) F

The demonstrative this-clefts, which begin with the demonstrative pronouns this or that, are often used in speech and writing to point to the utterance:

You see that villa? THAT"S what I’d like to buy.


Fronting or inversion topicalizes (makes prominent) the fronted constituent. In canonical sentences, the topic generally bears a neutral secondary stress in a sentence, with the focused position having the neutral primary stress. In noncanonical sentences, however, the fronted topic bears a stronger emphasis, which may be emphatic or contrastive, depending on the context:

Across the field flew a plane.

inversion-based topicalization of the adverbial

Which of these calls seemed more mysterious, it is not possible to say.

emphatic fronting of the complement clause
James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Talent, Mr. Micawber HAS; money, Mr. Micawber has NOT.

c-T c-F c-T c-F
contrastive fronting of the objects
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Passive voice can be used to shift emphasis from topic to focus (or from focus to topic, as it would be in an active version of the sentence):

active voice passive voice

Hurricane damaged MY HOUSE. ⟹ My house was damaged by the HURRICANE.


Deliberate sentence fragmenting is used to emphasize the fragment, underlying its dramatic, surprising, or shocking force:


Charles Dickens, Bleak House (the opening sentence)

Voters who want to vote should be able to vote. Period. Full stop.

― Barack Obama

Using imperative sentences with explicit periods at the end is an effective attention-getter trick, popular in marketing: e.g., brand taglines, ads, digital copywriting:

Just do it. Think different.

Nike's tagline Apple's tagline

Focusing adverbs (such as even, only, just, too, ) are used before the words they emphasize:

They’re open even today. Only you, and nobody else, can help me.


Rhetorical discourse connectives can be used for contrastive (and emphasized) linking if they are sentence-initial or sentence-final or for stressing a preceding word if they are positioned medially. These are always enclosed with commas:

However, they didn’t agree. They didn’t, however, agree.

They, however, didn’t agree. They didn’t agree, however.

This, in short, is why I refused. Sadly, we have failed to save him.

I, too, was not expecting this. They are here, at last!


Canonically placed adverbs can be emphasized by enclosing commas. When moved to another position, they acquire a rhetorical emphasis:

The soldier must stupidly have answered the officer’s question.

The soldier must, stupidly, have answered the officer’s question.

The soldier must have answered the officer’s question, stupidly.

Stupidly, the soldier must have answered the officer’s question.


Parallelism is one of the most effective methods of emphasis. It is used to emphasize the likeness or contrast between items. In parallel constructions, emphasis on the individual parallel items can be increased by repeating articles, prepositions, or introductory words:

We have traveled to everywhere: to Paris, London, Moscow, New York, Madrid and so on.

We have traveled to everywhere: to Paris, to London, to Moscow, to New York, to Madrid and so on.

Teachers need many hours outside of class time to plan new curricula, grade tests and papers, meet with parents, and work one-on-one with children who have special needs.

Teachers need many hours outside of class time to plan new curricula, to grade tests and papers, to meet with parents, and to work one-on-one with children who have special needs.

He was an extremely, fully, and thoroughly dedicated public servant.

He was an extremely, a fully, and a thoroughly dedicated public servant.


Asyndetic, syndetic, or polysyndetic linking styles with repeated elements can be used for different rhetoric effects and to generate emphasis.

Asyndetic style (without using any conjunctions) is more common with attributive adjectives. A comma between asyndetic paratactic (equal, parallel) adjectives can add emphasis to the adjectives as separate modifiers.

The delta function has a long, controversial history.

Her educated, conservative, strict parents found it hard to accept her career choice.

Replacing the comma with the conjunction and further increases this emphasis, marking them as syndetic paratactic adjectives:

The delta function has a long and controversial history.

Her educated, conservative, and strict parents found it hard to accept her career choice.

Moreover, syndetic modification is more appropriate if adjectives come in predicative position.

The men were cold, sick, and silent. You’re like a winter’s day: short, dark, and cold.

If we want to signal in a very literary, even poetic style, we may switch to the asyndetic style with the predicative modifiers:

The men were cold, sick, silent. My soul is exotic, mysterious, incomprehensible.

Polysyndetic linking (using multiple conjunctions) can be employed to emphasize every item in a series:

He can see you on Monday, Tuesday, or Friday. ⟶ He can see you on Monday or Tuesday or Friday.

The men were cold, sick, silent. ⟶ The men were cold, and sick, and silent.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers.

U.S. Postal Service creed

Antithetical contrastive statements and other parallel structures are often used for contrastive emphasis. Although they are typically asyndetic compound sentences, the punctuation mark separating the clauses is not a semicolon, as it should be in compound sentences, but a comma, to signal a closer connection between the clauses:

Not only is he selling out, he’s burning out. Not only was he incompetent