8.5 Emphasis & Subordination

You can help your readers to understand which of your ideas you consider most important by using emphasis and subordination. There are a variety of strategies to choose from to emphasize an idea or to subordinate (or de-emphasize) it.

Using Sentences to Emphasize or Subordinate Ideas

To emphasize an idea, place it in a short sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. Short and simple sentences most effectively convey important ideas. You can provide further explanation, sufficient examples, or evidence in the sentences that follow.

To subordinate an idea, place it in a compound sentence. You can also subordinate an idea by placing it in the middle of your paragraphs, as these tend to receive the least attention.


      • Emphasis: Smoking will no longer be permitted in the building. The committee on employee health and safety reached this decision after considering evidence from researchers and physicians on the dangers of second-hand smoke.
      • Subordination: The committee on employee health and safety has finished considering evidence, and they have reached the decision that smoking will no longer be permitted in the building.

*Note in the first example that the writer states the main point right away—”Smoking will no longer be permitted in the building”— followed by the reasoning. In the second example, the writer chooses instead to start with the reasoning before stating the main point (effectively subordinating it by pushing it to the end of the sentence). This strategy can be rhetorically effective, especially when delivering bad or unpleasant news—providing the reasons first can cushion the bad news. Be careful not to unintentionally subordinate important ideas or points.  

Using Diction to Emphasize or Subordinate Ideas

The language you use (or diction or vocabulary) can also suggest how important an idea is. Use phrases such as most important, major, or primary when discussing ideas you want to emphasize, and phrases such as a minor point to consider or less important to discuss ideas you want to subordinate. 


      • Emphasis: Our primary consideration must be cost.
      • Subordination: A minor consideration is appearance.

Using Active or Passive Voice to Emphasize or Subordinate Ideas

Use active voice to emphasize the person or thing performing the action; use passive voice to emphasize the action that is being performed.


      • Active voice: Scientists have conducted experiments to test the hypothesis.
      • Passive voice: Experiments have been conducted to test the hypothesis.

*Generally it’s preferable to use the active voice; however, passive voice can be rhetorically effective in some cases. For instance, note in the active example above how the focus of the sentence (its subject) is on the scientists who have conducted the experiments; in the second example, the focus is on the experiments, thereby emphasizing those and subordinating the scientists.

**For more information on using active and passive voice, see the textbook section on Active vs. Passive Voice.

Using Physical Page Spacing to Emphasize or Subordinate Ideas

The amount of space you devote to an idea on the page will help convey the idea’s importance to the reader: emphasized ideas tend to be given more space on the page than subordinated ideas.


      • Communication is arguably the most import activity in any profession. When preparing a technical document, it is vitally important to understand your audience: Will your report he read by people with a vast knowledge of the subject or by novices just entering the field? Knowing your audience affects the style and scope of your report. In the technical fields, reports are often generated from carrying out an experiment (research) and may be in the form of word-processed document or in a bound log/lab book.
      • Writing reports based on your lab experiments is one approach to creating a technical report.

*Note that the first example would appear more important (visually-speaking) to readers simply because there is more information than the second sample.

Using Repetition to Emphasize or Subordinate Ideas

Repeating important ideas is good way to emphasize them as well. Be careful not to overuse this strategy, as you may lose reader interest.


      • Our primary consideration must be costcost to build, cost for additional products and supplies, cost for overhead and maintenance, and cost for increased staffing.
      • We are proposing a number of increases for our expansion, an increase in staffing, an increase in sales, an increase in our product line, an increase in our customer base, an increase in customer satisfaction, and an increase of our public visibility.

For more information, watch the following video, “Write with Emphasis for a Compelling Style,” from OnTargetEnglish:


Additional Resources


*This page borrows from the following source: 
"Use Appropriate Emphasis and Subordination." Coursehero.com. Source link.