A question of word emphasis.

Word Emphasis Matters

When talking to others, in casual conversation or a formal setting, being aware of where you put the emphasis on your words is important to communicate more clearly and effectively and to avoid misunderstanding.

I’m a stickler for HOW people speak. And, word emphasis fascinates me because it changes the meaning of a sentence, phrase, or idea, simply with the tone, energy, modulation of our voice. Consider this sentence with the emphasis on each separate word:

  1. HOW do you know Bessie Smith?
  2. How DO you know Bessie Smith?
  3. How do YOU know Bessie Smith?
  4. How do you KNOW Bessie Smith?
  5. How do you know BESSIE Smith?
  6. How do you know Bessie SMITH?

My translation of each implication may be different than yours. However, it makes the point that the emphasis changes EVERYTHING.

Here is my interpretation of the different sentences:

  1. HOW do you know Bessie Smith? This asks about the history of how you happen to know her.
  2. How DO you know Bessie Smith? This could be rhetorical, as in “can you REALLY know her?” OR it could imply a sense of genuine interest in how you’ve come to know her.
  3. How do YOU know Bessie Smith? This seems to imply skepticism with an air of condescension as to how you could possibly know this person.
  4. How do you KNOW Bessie Smith? This could imply whether or not you really know her, questioning your knowing her at all.
  5. How do you know BESSIE Smith? This could imply how you know Bessie over the other Smiths.
  6. How do you know Bessie SMITH? Similar implication to the first two OR that there is more than one Bessie and the questioner is trying to decipher one Bessie from another.

In a voice-over script situation, when typing out a word for pronunciation sake, capitalizing the emphasized syllable is crucial for my reading it correctly. Further, capitalizing a WORD goes a long way in providing script direction.

In a less formal conversation, beyond the world of voice-over scripts, are you aware of what you are saying? Or, …WHAT others are saying to you?…what OTHERS are saying to you?…what others are saying to YOU?!


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  1. Lisette van Raadshooven

    I loved this examination of how the same sentence can be so different with various emphasis on key words. Again a great example of possible misunderstanding and unintended emotional reactions. Thanks Tash. You always give me so much to think about.

    • natashamarchewka

      Thank you for always being so supportive of my blogs! Glad you enjoyed!

  2. drbobabell

    Thanks Natasha. This COULD be a part of our internal procedure manuals. ;-). We OFTEN capitalize full or part words in our scripts for EXACTLY the reason you suggest!

  3. Mary Jane Copps

    This is brilliant. I hope you will do more of them. Emphasis is extremely important in phone conversations because there is no body language as support. It is very easy to have someone misinterpret you on the phone if you aren’t aware your emphatic language. I look forward to more examples from you, Natasha.

  4. Linda Daley

    I’m looking forward to learning more during our coaching session!


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