Category archive - Writing

What does your font say about you?

What does your font say about you?

I’ve just read this rather entertaining piece in the Guardian about Comic Sans, the eternally hated font, and it got me thinking.

I railed against using Comic Sans during my years of teaching and insisted essays be in Times New Roman, 12 point (although I prefer 11 for some reason). But in the Guardian interview, the typographer explains there is a time and place for Comic Sans, I’m beginning to feel more fondness towards the maligned font. It was designed for novice computer users, for children and really, for fun and frivolity. And it does that job well.

Let’s be honest, it’s a more readable font than, say, Blackadder, Edwardian Script or Brush Script, which also have their place (usually my children’s Powerpoint presentations :S).

But what does a font say about you? Curtis Newbold (The Visual Communication Guy) came up with this fun font-related personality test (click image for a better look) and a study at Wichita State University looked into how employers see fonts used on applications, and came up with similar results.


I wobble between Times New Roman, which makes me “old fashioned and boring”, Garamond — ” traditional and safe” — and Aleo “forward thinking and fresh”, depending on who I’m writing to and what the occasion is.

For a while, my email font was dark-blue TNR, then I went back to black. For ages, I favoured Garamond until, in a fit of peak, I dashed back to old faithful, TNR.

There are times I quite like a bit of the friendly Georgia — a serif font clear and easy to read both printed and on screen. And although Newbold reckons Courier New is for the “apathetic”, I like the serif.

But I like serifs generally. Serifs, the little foot at the bottom of letters or symbols, are there to help us read more efficiently in print. For many people with dyslexia, though, the serif is a nuisance, making reading considerably harder than when there is no serif.

What font do you enjoy reading most? And which do you prefer when you’re writing?

Emails of complaint

Emails of complaint

1322466000_now_to_be_br-7In one of the writing courses, we’ve been dealing with email of complaint, a skill B2-level writers should be able to handle, but that we have to teach and grade at high-C1 for our teacher trainers as they learn the ropes of using grammars of politeness and how to complain in an English-speaking world.

Grammars of politeness and ways of softening a message include (not limited to)

– using modals,

– words like ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ when suggesting a solution

– modals with questions and -ing forms (‘could it be worth considering’),

– superlatives in the positives (‘a truly wonderful week’) and

– played-down phrases (‘could have been better’ instead of ‘were really/very bad’ and substituting ‘very’ and ‘really’ for ‘a bit’, ‘somewhat’, ‘something of a …’, ‘a trifle’ in the complaint section of the writing

Sandwiching is also very important — start every sentence positively and put the complaint in the latter part of the sentence, then suggested solutions either as a new sentence or as another clause in what would then be a very long compound-complex sentence. Without sandwiching, a complaint becomes a rant and is unlikely to get a positive response.

We don’t get them writing limited business-to-business stuff, but encourage them to use a bit more story with a range of sentence patterns, so they can meet C1 criteria. It is a fine line we tread, especially as many of the examples we’ve found in textbooks lack the complexity required of a higher-level writer, and companies rarely publish emails of complaint.

After receiving some fairly aggressively written emails of complaint, we tried to work out what we had done wrong in our teaching. And, actually, it turned out that the Austrian students simply don’t believe that English speakers complain like this and that we are as direct as they are. We’re don’t and we’re not (a brief piece about how to be polite and complain at the same time, and another in GQ). 

I decided to model an example — with 20 students, so it is somewhat clumsy at times — one that would make use of the grammars and expressions of politeness and push the students to use the idiomatic phrases expected of a C1 writer, but I am interested in your opinions, Internet world. Do you think this is an excessively polite piece of writing (bare in mind we HAVE to have some of the more convoluted sentence patterns in there to fulfil the grading criteria)?

What do you think needs to be added and removed to make it a shining example of an email of complaint?

Subject: Feedback on KCSS

Dear Sir or Madam,

For the last four weeks, I’ve had the time of my life at KCSS. After arriving in LA, with its amazing weather (so different from home), we were whisked to a truly welcoming welcome party where we met people who would turn out to be best friends forever.

As the summer got under way, getting to know each other better took place, often, at the sports field, with its vast range of equipment; I met Charlie, for example, as we rummaged through the tennis store looking for a racket, but it turned out that many of them could have been in better condition. We decided to play football instead, but it might be worth considering checking through the store a little more regularly to make sure the equipment is in good shape.

Exhausted from our exertions, we headed back to camp, eager to dive into the buffet awaiting us: a table groaning under the weight of burgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza and all manner of wonderfully American fare, fare which was possibly a little on the salty and fatty side for some of the other campers, who spent quite a bit of time running back and forth to the toilet. Maybe, when cooking for such a large group, some of whom have specific dietary needs, you might think about cutting back on the salt and fat a bit/ offer a little more variety of dishes, maybe a few more vegetarian options.

I really did have a superb trip and would love to come back next year with friends, so I would be very grateful if you could consider my suggestions for future years, and, possibly, think about some sort of remuneration/compensation, maybe in form of a discount or voucher for next year.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards/ Best wishes/ Best regards,

Ann Example


When Writing Is Your North, Your South, Your East, Your West

When Writing Is Your North, Your South, Your East, Your West

Recently I was asked why I write. For some reason it annoyed me! This is my slightly ranty response explaining why I write one Wednesday morning at 3 a.m. It starts with a very lazy poem.

Why do I write?

Why do I feed my children?

Why do I blink?

Why do I think?

Why do I dream?

Why do I live?

Why does my heart beat?

Why does one foot fall in front of the other?

Why do I breathe?

Why will I die? 

Why do I write?

…but it’s so cliche. I write because I do, because I want to, because I have to — just the same reason that anyone does anything they are passionate about. Passion is a part of us, and after a while, if we are lucky enough to really fit our passion into our world, the passion becomes our daily life and maybe slips into being everything and nothing. Our stress, our reward, our heaven and our hell — and our daily bread: it feeds our heads, our hearts, our banks and our passion.

I don’t like writing about writing. It aggravates me and makes me a cliche … a writer who loves writing. Quel surprise — no different from an accountant who loves accounting, or an architect who loves drafting, but because words are our skill we’re expected to wax lyrical about it.

A bit too negative? Maybe. But the poem and the cliche-hater is me: my ‘wholehearted, all-encompassed, inextricably-connected adoration of writing’ writer, and my ‘Wednesday afternoon, stressed about deadlines, frustrated by the endless monotony of it all’ writer. All writers count themselves exceedingly lucky to be paid to write: who wouldn’t feel lucky to do what they love?

The connection between my life and my writing is impossible to define – it’s in everything I do.

My point is not that I don’t like writing — very, very far from it — but that I don’t feel I should need to examine why I do my job, as most other professions don’t need to. My day-to-day writing work ISN’T wandering aimless as a cloud, it’s churning out webcopy about running, about scaffold towers, about cleaning and about website design — all of them paid for by clients whose voice I am. I switch from teacher in the morning to jobbing builder in an afternoon, and it’s not easy, and, in honesty, it’s not a lot of fun much of the time. I do it because they can’t.

I hope you can see a little better where I’m coming from. Never think I don’t love writing. I do, and I’m bound to it till death do us part.

Breaking the Passive Habit

Breaking the Passive Habit

There are five good reasons for using the passive, aside from those, using the active is by far the more preferable way of writing. There are some, though, who can’t seem to break the habit of overusing it. Surely, there has to be an element of changing the way you think, but there are practical things you can do until that change happens.

Happily, the practicalities of removing passive in your writing is pretty simple using functions in Word — maybe when you see where you use the passive, your thinking will start to change naturally.

How to find your passives

On your document, use CTRL+F to launch a ‘find’ facility. Type ‘by’ into the search area (why ‘by’? See here: grades are received by students, results are understood by reading the research thoroughly), which will help you find unnecessary passives that have the subject in the object position (everything after the ‘by’).

When you find that subject in the object position, you can easily restructure the sentence to put the subject in the active position (usually at the beginning of the sentence) and make the whole sentence active (e.g. students receive grades, reading the research helps us to understand the results).

You could also use the CTRL+F function to search for conjugations of ‘to be’ (is, are, should be, have been etc.), again, helping you to identify where you have used the passive forms and changing them to active.

And there you have it. Passives will be a thing of your past, unless you use them for a particular purpose.

Thanks for the loan of image


Classroom Creative

Classroom Creative

Back in 2001, a wonderful website called TeachIt appeared. It pooled resources created by English teachers for teachers, so we didn’t all have to reinvent the wheel every time we had to teach something new (or old!). I started contributing in 2002 — and some of those early resources are still active, reaping in royalties every six months — enough to buy a new Moleskine, should I give in to temptation!

Over the years, I’ve uploaded a few resources (19 to be precise), but I’ve hardly been prolific simply because I’m no longer in the secondary-school classroom, so my finger isn’t really on the current curriculum pulse (is anyone’s?!), but some of the stuff I create for uni, I adapt and offer up for anyone who might like them. And it seems some do. Five people ‘love’ a piece I wrote about mobile phones, in which students need to correct  some pretty vile grammar crimes.

A few weeks ago, the resource lady at TeachIt asked if I’d be interested in putting together some ideas for the classroom. Why not? It would be nice to a. get a bit of cash coming in, and b. get my brain thinking GCSE again a bit. So it did. And what fun I had last week racking my brain for creative approaches to listening and speaking, and non-fiction and media writing.

Teaching a Listening and Speaking course at Salzburg Uni made coming up with ideas for the speaking and listening resource pretty easy, but trying to think of ways to get students writing in any other way but actually just writing was flipping difficult! It seems, though, that I did OK: “these are brilliant, I’ve passed round a few to the other editors and these have been the most highly praised” *blushes*

Paper to Digital — A Year On

Paper to Digital — A Year On

I’ve just got back from shopping for my son’s mountain of school things for the beginning of term. And one of those things was a school planner. I’m indoctrinating him early into the joys of the school planner, so got him a Moleskine 18-monther.

I love them. I love pulling the plastic off. I love the gentle breath of air the pages take in as I open the front cover. I love the feel of the pages. I love everything about them. Until last year, my favourite part of the year was buying my own, so who would I be to deny the next generation that thrill?

But now I have a Nexus and, technically, have no need of a written planner. All of my lessons, I can add in less than a minute, rather than having to write each one into a planner by hand, and I can easily co-ordinate my freelance work with no flicking of pages (wonderful creamy pages). My ColorNotes saves me from having to rewrite the parts of my to-do list that I haven’t to-doed into the next week. And all of my e-mail, plans and gadgetry are all there, at my fingertips — with a backlight, so I don’t have to faff around turning the light on and waking the house up when my brain floods me with ideas in the early hours.

Buying his Moleskine earlier this afternoon was emotional, though. It hurt. Watching him pulling the plastic off and flicking through the pages was bitter-sweet. How wonderful that he can share in that pleasure, but how long will it be until he realises how much easier digilife is? My heart was screaming at me to buy one too, to go back to my written planner, to treat myself. But my head far too sensibly told me that using the Nexus makes more sense, it’s easier to keep on top of things, and I can organise all my juggling so much better with it.

At least I’ll get to use his daily when I check his homework and write notes to his teacher. Have to see the positives, eh!?

Back up and running!

Back up and running!

After months of not being able to login to my WordPress, it seems I’m back. How exciting! Now I can write all those blogs I’ve wanted to write for the last three months. Three months for goodness sake. Well that hiatus is now in the past. Over. Finished. Le Fin.

It’s been a busy few months. I got another distinction in my MA in Professional Writing, putting me at five for five, and I’ve just finished the research module and readied myself to write the Sentences book over the next few months.

I spent a week in Palestine to help me get a grip on life in the West Bank for the Sesame Street book. The dipped my toe into the world of publishing and book markets at the London Book Fair.

Now, it’s head down for the last six weeks of the teaching semester before a summer of writing. I really can’t wait for that. Proper writing time interrupted only by a week’s internship at Pearlfisher branding agency in London.

What I’ll do this time next year when Sentences and Sesame Street first drafts are finished. No MA and no proposals to write. Goodness, I’ll not know what to do with the time. If I’m lucky I’ll hang myself upside down in the burning oil that is teaching Advanced Grammar — something to look forward to!


20 Sentence Patterns You Can’t Ignore

20 Sentence Patterns You Can’t Ignore

I’ve been working and researching sentences almost daily, now, for over a year. Yes I’m a word-nerd, but there you have it.

In my travels, one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading was The Art of Styling Sentences.

And during one of my late-night sentence surfs, I stumbled across this cracking summary, which I have lifted directly from the lovely people at Oxford Tutorials because I think it’s so incredibly useful.

Twenty Sentence Patterns

1. Compound construction with semi-colon—to condense; to unify

Talent is only one half of it; hard work is the other.

2. Compound construction with ellipsis (omitting a repeated verb ) and comma — to create rhythm or balance

A red light means stop; a green light, go.

3. Compound construction with a colon—to create interest

Dawkins’ God Delusion is educational: it teaches bad logic.

4. A series without a conjunction—to create smooth flow

King Henry won loyalty with his courage, faith and humility.

5. A series of balanced pairs—to create rhythm

He abandoned God and family, faith and honour, house and home.

6. Introductory series of appositives—to expand points succinctly

Vanity, greed, revenge—which was the book’s main theme?

7. Internal series of appositives—to convey information quickly

Some predators—lions, wolves, tigers—have been hunted almost to extinction.

8. Dependent clauses: paired or in series—to summarize main points

“Whether you eat, or whether you drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

St. Paul (1 Cor. 10:31)

9. Repetition of key terms—to create emphasis or intensity

“Never give in… never—in nothing great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
      Winston Churchill

10. Appositive at end, after colon or dash—to build to a climax

Students must conquer a two-headed monster—laziness and boredom.

11. Modifier between subject and verb—to add interest

The tiniest dot—all you once were—marks the beginning of life.

12. Introductory or concluding participles—for variety

Driven by greed, Scrooge almost lost his soul. Awaking to the light, the fugitive resumed his flight.

13. A single modifier out of place anywhere—for emphasis

Occasionally, my parents will argue.       

14. Prepositional phrase before subject-verb—for emphasis

     “By their own follies they perished, the fools.” Homer

15. Object or complement before subject-verb—for emphasis

“Famous and wealthy an English teacher will never be.”

16. Paired constructions—to make comparisons or contrasts

“As slavery divided North and South, so did the Indian Wars divide the East and West.”

17. Dependent clause as subject, object or complement—for variety

{How that could happen} is a complete mystery.  We couldn’t see {who it was}.  The result was {what he predicted].

18. Absolute construction (noun or pronoun with a participle) —to add interest and variety

{God willing}, we will arrive tomorrow.  The students, {their minds disciplined}, persevered.  We are doing well, {all things considered}. 

19. A short sentence for effect—to summarize or provide transition

Jesus wept.” (Jn. 11:35)  “I came, I saw, I conquered.” J. Caesar

20. Deliberate fragment—for dramatic effect

But how?  Never!  Next stop—eternity!  What a price to pay!
What a mistake!  Absolute power corrupting once more. 

Extraposition and Inversion: Glam-sounding Simple Things

Extraposition and Inversion: Glam-sounding Simple Things

Sentence patterns are very predictable in English, and, whether you’re a native-speaker or not, it’s easy to get into a rut with the way you approach writing.

These are two little guys that have a lot to give, simply by being cheeky and getting into places they wouldn’t ordinarily be.


To break away from the expectations of sentence patterns, you can invert. Here, the verb comes before the subject (i.e. use the question form for the main verb) and a prepositional phrase helps to emphasise the verb.

            High up in the sky flew the plane

            Out came the sunshine.

            Along the street came a car, battered and red.

After negative adverbials (usually used with perfect and/or modals (can/could) and usually in comparison (explicit or implied))

Never have I been more excited.

Not only had she learnt to walk very early, but she had also started talking before her first birthday.

Rarely have I asked for help.

Seldom can I say I’m worried about life.


Very simply, the subject gives up its place at the beginning of the sentence and goes on a short break to the end of the sentence.

            The twins are in first place = In first place are the twins.

            At the deep end of the pool were the older kids = The older kids were at the deep end of the pool.

When extraposition is introduced by ‘it’ they are actually fairly natural:

It’s a good idea to have a spare pen = To have a spare pen is a good idea.

You’re more likely to hear the first version, though, aren’t you — so extraposition is a rather glam-sounding thing that you never realised you did.

Starting a sentence with a ‘that’ noun-clause can be considered rather awkward, so is usually introduced with ‘it is’:

That the world will come to an end is inevitable. = It is inevitable that the world will come to an end.

Just another tool for you to stick in your toolbox before you get writing.

Five Positives for Using the Passive Voice

Five Positives for Using the Passive Voice

Six positives if you count annoying any English teacher who’s told you to only write in the active voice.

Writing teachers don’t half go on sometimes, right?

Yes, of course, wherever possible use the active voice, but there are times when the passive can come in very handy.

1. Emphasis is on what happened, not who did it.

Obama was voted the first black president.

2. You don’t know who did the action

Fire was invented a very long time ago – even before I was born.

3. Who does it is unimportant

Smoking is not allowed.

4. To stay/appear objective, scientific, technical or logical.

Her clothes were soaked, suitcase was broken and her neck, severed.

5. To appear diplomatic – especially when a mistake has been made.

An error has been made and we plan to right that wrong.

Is it any massive surprise to learn that academic papers and oops-we-made-a-boo-boo political speeches are littered with passive voice? It can be like a game of Hide the Subject out there. 

Just in those few examples, you can see how the emphasis falls on a different part of the sentence, how, if you wrote them in the active, you might have someone taking blame, you might have to use — eww — one and you’d probably have all kinds of information that, quite frankly, we couldn’t give two hoots about.

So, be proud of the passive and let it have its day because it really can pack some punch when used properly.

How to Move from One Sentence to the Next, Naturally

How to Move from One Sentence to the Next, Naturally

The key to moving naturally from one sentence to the next — which is, of course, the whole point of writing — is good transitions. Such good transitions, in fact, that the reader hardly notices them. They often provide a more conspiratorial feel to a piece of writing: the reader and writer are in it together, if you will.

Time transitions

Perhaps the most common type of transition is one that indicates the amount of time that has passed in a narrative, such as:

One morning, when they’d been waiting for nearly a month.

From this we learn that the scene takes place in the morning and that ‘they’ have been waiting or whatever it was for nearly a month. Not knowing what ‘it’ is builds tension, especially considering the length of the wait.

PUNCTUATION NOTE: Most transition phrases and dependent clauses (that start with when, who, while, as and so on) at the beginning of a sentence need a comma. A rather vague rule is that one- or two-word transitions at the beginning of a sentence can use a comma, or not … your choice, but if it’s over four words, a comma is most likely needed.

When I walked to the car, I realised I’d left the door open. (with comma)

Earlier I had put the bins out. (optional comma)

Time transitions:

  • At the same time
  • Afterwards
  • For four weeks
  • Meanwhile
  • In the evening
  • For a month
  • In the early hours of the morning
  • After lunch
  • At night
  • The next day
  • Later that evening
  • When the sun sank
  • The following Tuesday
  • A week later
  • Months passed
  • At the appointed time
  • The next time they met
  • When they arrived home
  • As they approached
  • In the year 1575 (my father-in-law started his wedding speech like this :S)
  • It took a month, but
  • On the first sunny day

Place transitions
To avoid the ‘dishwasher syndrome’ — telling every move that is made within a story —  you want to be able to change time in a narrative, and this can usually be done in a concise sentence.

Try these:

Maria kept Anna off school for the day and they went to the sweetshop.

This moves the scene from an ordinary world and shifted it to a sweetshop. Fairly easily done!

They wandered around Venice, slowly taking in the sights and sounds, smells and experiences.

It was a battle to drag her suitcases down the narrow backstairs of the cruise ship, and to squeeze against the walls to let other bewildered newbies pass as she stumbled her way to the berth that would be hers for the coming few months.

Place transitions:

  • They boarded the plane, train, bus,.
  • The room was
  • She jogged nervously through the dark streets
  • When the train stopped,
  • She settled in to
  • The chair was located
  • Farther along Duke Street
  • The car inched through the traffic
  • They hid below the stairs of the
  • Opposite the church
  • When they reached
  • In the school hall

Pace transitions
Using speech or actions can accelerate or slow the pace of a sentence. For example,

Eileen hurtled from the car and down the front steps to the flat

has a much different effect than

Eileen slouched from the car and checked to make sure all that each of the doors were locked. She helped her neighbour carry the baby in its pram down the front steps then hunted through her pockets for her door key.

Notice how the transition not only signals a leap in time, but also a change in urgency or mood.

Listen, also, to the sounds of the words to identify whether they are slow or quick and use the sounds to your advantage.

Other examples:

  • Not daring to glance back, they charged toward the lights (quickens the pace)
  • To avoid her, he shuffled through the rooms (slows)
  • “Things have changed under the new rules,” he drawled (slows)
  • “You idiot. You bloody fool. Do you want to get us killed?” (quickens)
  • He pushed to the front of the room (quickens)
  • As a consequence, the weight of the news bore down on him (slows)
  • “We have hours to wait,” she said (slows)
  • With Sunday-morning ease, Susan rolled over under her duvet (slows)
  • Peter ducked behind the wall and held his breath (quickens) 

There, There: A No-brainer for Emphasis in a Sentence

There, There: A No-brainer for Emphasis in a Sentence

This approach to adding emphasis or drawing attention to one part of a sentence is rather grandly called ‘existential there’ or ‘transformational there’.

Now, this is astonishingly simple, and how it can be a CEF C2 grading marker, I’ll never know! But look at how it moves the emphasis:

A stranger is standing on the porch.

There’s a stranger standing on the porch.

In the first sentence ‘is standing’ takes the a low-peak emphasis at the beginning of the sentence with ‘on the porch’ being the main focus, whereas ‘a stranger’ is the main focus in the second. So now we’re intrigued by this stranger, and we care fairly little about where he’s standing — though it does add a nice bit of setting description.

What about these? 

No tickets were available this morning.

There were no tickets available this morning.

Similarly, emphasis is moved from ‘this morning’ to the main point of the sentence: ‘ no tickets’.

Again, the stress moves from the end of the sentence, to the word we want to emphasise.

All of these approaches help to move the subject away from the front of the sentence and into an emphatic position, into the place that we, as competent speakers of English, put the emphasis.

A Word to the Wise: Sentences beginning with ‘it’ or ‘there’, and using ‘to be’ constructions should be used with care. Make sure that you don’t overuse these patterns – and ONLY use them when they add emphasis appropriately. Like anything: too much is a bad thing.

They can be boorishly heavy-handed approaches when overused, and make your writing repetitive and immature. So, you have been warned. After all, no-one wants to be repetitive and immature, do they?!

Make Words Work

Make Words Work

Placing emphasis on the right idea and right word in a sentence is an art. In the UK this isn’t something we really played with as children, which I think is a crying shame. In the US it’s standard grade-school fare, as far as I understand it.

I don’t really ever toying with word order or fiddling around to get the perfect effect. Shame.

Below is an example of a process called sentence combining.

You get a cluster of ideas, which you use to play around with until you get the sentence that works best for your story.

Here’s a basic cluster:

The apartment was quiet

It was punctuated by ticking

The ticking was soft

The ticking was insistent

The ticking came from a clock

And here’s what I made out of that cluster. Some I like, some I don’t, but look at the difference in each of the sentences, achieved simply by moving the words and ideas around.

Sometimes I add a word to alter the meaning of the sentence, but, for the most part, the words stay the same. It’s just word order and use of punctuation that places the emphasis.

  1. The quiet in the apartment was punctuated by ticking. The soft, insistent ticking of the clock.
  2. It was the ticking clock, soft and insistent, that punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  3. It was the quiet apartment punctuated by the soft, insistent ticking of the clock.
  4. It was the clock, ticking, soft and insistent, that punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  5. What punctuated the quiet of the apartment was the ticking of the clock, insistent but soft.
  6. Soft and insistent, the ticking of the clock punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  7. The apartment was quiet; only the ticking of the clock, soft and insistent, punctuated that quiet.
  8. There was a ticking, soft and insistent, that punctuated the apartment’s quiet.
  9. All that punctuated the quiet of the apartment was the ticking of the clock, soft but insistent.
  10. Only the ticking of the clock punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  11. But, punctuated only by the soft, insistent ticking of the clock, the apartment was quiet.
  12. Punctuated only by ticking clock, soft and insistent, the apartment was quiet.

Which do you like most? Why?



How Tiny Words Can Change Your Writing

How Tiny Words Can Change Your Writing

One tiny little word can make such a difference to the meaning, the deeper meaning, of a sentence. Take a look at these almost silent, yet incredibly powerful little guys and have a think about how using them could affect your sentences, affect your writing, heck, let’s get a little carried away: how they could affect your life.

‘All’ at the beginning of a sentence emphasises ‘the only thing’

I only need a five-minute nap = All I need is a five-minute nap.

            I just want a holiday = All I want is a holiday.

Look at all that desparation heaped onto the sentence starting with all.  Doesn’t it just make you want to cry?!


Similarly ‘only’ at the beginning of a sentence emphasises ‘being the only one’

Only Elizabeth knew how bad it could get.

            Only the sparrows sang louder.

How alone, how tragic. Poor Elizabeth, stuck in a vacuum of nothingness. And, wow, how loud, how arrogant are those chest-out sparrows?

Little’ at the beginning of a sentence has a negative or restrictive meaning

Little do they know how important this lesson will be for them.

            Little do children appreciate how much work parents do for them.

It’s us against them, right? Conspiratorial. Secretive. All that, from such a small word. Good things come in small packages!

All Power to ‘To Be’: Cleft Sentences

All Power to ‘To Be’: Cleft Sentences

Writing teachers can be super mean about ‘to be’. It’s a boring, unemotive, indescriptive verb, a total waste of space, right?

But ‘to be’ can be something of an unsung hero for several ways to put emphasis in a sentence.

By adding the ‘it+is/was’ to the beginning of the sentence, they take a massive hit for the rest of the team. They are swallowed/lost to provide emphasis. You have to be a bit proud of them, really.

It is a CLEFT sentence.

‘It + is/was’ moves the focus from the end of the sentence to the ‘unstressed valley’ at the beginning of the sentence.

By using this approach  you can place the emphasis on any number of parts of the sentence, depending on what you — the writer — consider the most important part of the story.

Here’s a little formula to help you

It + be (+not/ adverb) + emphasised word/phrase + noun clause (that/who/which)

Have a look at this:

Jack drove the car last night.

            It was Jack who drove the car last night.

            It was last night [that] Jack drove the car.

            It was the car [that] Jack drove last night.


You could add a ‘because’ to add reason, purpose or to build narrative:

It was because I was drunk that Jack drove the car.

There are ‘it-clefts’ and there are also cleft clause beginning with ‘what’ (also known as noun clauses!), that can also take the role of the sentence infantryman.

What’ clauses are usually used with verbs like ‘need’, ‘want’, ‘like’, ‘hate’:

I need a holiday = What I need is a holiday (notice no comma after ‘need’, despite the pause!)

They are wrecking the country = What they are doing is wrecking the country. (Again, no comma!)

So, another formula:

wh-clause + is/was/were+ do/did/doing + emphasised word/phrase

Of course, the wh-cleft clause needs to have both a subject and a verb and the emphasised phrase usually uses an infinitive (to + verb).

Wh-clefts help you place the emphasis in the action of a sentence

What Lily did was [to] buy her mum some flowers.

What we’ll be doing is [to be] partying hard.

What the relatives were doing, nobody knows.

Have a play around in your most recent piece of writing and work out whether you can use cleft sentences to get the emphasis you want.

Coming up next: Using a Connotative Word for Emphasis