‘The’ way to emphasise a word

Quotation marks for ‘emphasis’ are common in unedited writing but rare in formal prose, where italics are the usual approach. Bold and underlines are occasionally used; ditto *asterisks* and _underscores_. ALL CAPS and Initial Caps are sometimes favoured but can suggest shouting, humour, or a headline effect, so they’re more suited to informal contexts: both are popular on social media, for example.

There’s an anomalous example in a book I just read, Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist, an engrossing memoir/exposé by Paul Kimmage (Yellow Jersey Press, revised edition, 2007). It occurs about halfway in; Kimmage is describing the effect of Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France:

Back in Ireland, Stephen’s Tour triumph was celebrated as a national victory. He was welcomed home to scenes of incredible adulation in an open-top bus tour of Dublin. Cycling was ‘the’ sport, and winning the Tour made Stephen the greatest sportsman the country had ever produced – and one of the most popular. [underlines added]

When the word the is emphasised, its pronunciation changes: the vowel shifts from an unstressed schwa /ə/ to an /iː/ ‘ee’ sound, like thee. This usage comes under sense 13 in Macmillan Dictionary, sense 9 in Collins, and sense 5 in Oxford.

In the short clause Cycling was ‘the’ sport, the idea is to indicate that cycling was the most important or fashionable sport at the time. The quotation marks (aka inverted commas) around the definite article achieve this – since the is a function word, there’s no risk of ambiguity – but the technique is unexpected.

As a writer I’d have used italics, as a reader I’d have expected them, and as an editor–proofreader I’d have changed or flagged the quotation marks. It’s not a serious error, but in edited prose the usage is non-standard (or at least unorthodox), and is therefore of editorial interest to me. Have you seen it in similar contexts?


I didn’t plan to read Rough Ride during Bike Week, but the timing was apt. On Friday I joined a few dozen others on a bike buffet, which was a terrific event: a delicious meal distributed around the town, each course in a different location and a bike ride between them.

The main course was al fresco by a wildflower meadow on the west side. Galway’s skyline is low enough to offer a sliver of bay between the rooftops and the shower clouds:

stan carey - bike buffet galway wildflower meadow stone

stan carey - bike buffet galway wildflower meadow hill


16 Responses to ‘The’ way to emphasise a word

  1. hmunro says:

    I also would have flagged that usage — or perhaps even changed it to italics — because it is indeed distracting. Of course, now I’m curious whether you found any other words called out for emphasis in the text, and if so, what style convention those followed. On a completely different note, that bike-ride-with-dinner event looks wonderful! Thank you for sharing your lovely photos.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Not many other words are emphasised, but here’s one I noticed:

      The great Cyril Guimard in my room.

      Italics are frequent throughout the book for foreign terms (especially French), newspaper and magazine names, and so on. But I’ve just remembered that when Kimmage transcribes his thoughts from the time of an event he’s narrating, he uses quotation marks again, rather than the italics that would be more customary, e.g.:

      I looked for the top of the mountain and the lines of spectators showed me exactly how far I had to go. ‘Christ, I’m not sure I can make it.’ I kept slipping backwards . . .

      The bike buffet was wonderful, thank you! Excellent company and food, and even the drizzle proved refreshing.

  2. Having an emphasis mark, rather than an emphasis style, is more robust for digital text. All the semantic information is stored in the text data, and is likely to survive transitions between formats. In Markdown, the asterisk is used and later programmatically changed to the proper style.

  3. dscrimshaw says:

    I would not have been distracted by the quote marks around “the”. To me, they would have been like the air quotes that someone puts around a word to show it’s not really the right word.

    I would take it to mean that the writer is acknowledging that there were in fact other sports than cycling.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Those kind of quotation marks are normally called scare quotes; I discuss them briefly in my Macmillan Dictionary post. The example here is altogether different: the marks are meant to emphasise the word. The dictionary links in my post define this use of the quite clearly, however it happens to be styled.

  4. Pauntley Roope says:

    In Australia it is particularly common for greengrocers and other shopkeepers selling foodstuffs to use quotation marks for emphasis. As in: “Fresh” Strawberries – a practice which tends to encourage scepticism among literate consumers. (They are always double quotes – presumably for extra emphasis.) I wonder, however, if the example you give – cycling is ‘the’ sport – is not in fact an acceptable or legitimate usage. It seems to me that this is a true quotation, drawing attention to a common idiomatic use of the word. As if someone were to write: Cycling is just the ‘bees knees’, which looks OK to me. You hint at this when pointing out that ‘the’ is pronounced in a special way in this particular usage.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’ll link again to my Macmillan piece on this, because it looks specifically at unfortunate cases like ‘fresh’ fish. Double marks are probably favoured in such contexts for their greater visibility or familiarity, rather than lending any extra emphasis.

      If the quotation marks in Cycling was ‘the’ sport were meant to mark an idiomatic use of the definite article, I’d expect to see it a lot more. I would welcome examples. To me it just looks like the quotation marks were used (unconventionally) for emphasis. Italics are the customary way to do this in ordinary edited prose.

      The dictionaries I link to offer examples. Collins has: Harry’s is the club in this town – here, the whole line is in italics, so the is in Roman; normally the styles would be reversed. Oxford has: he was the hot young piano prospect in jazz – again, the whole line is in italics, so the has to be emphasised some other way, in this case bold text. Quotation marks don’t feature.

  5. John Cowan says:

    I think that quotation marks for thoughts are perfectly normal. I wouldn’t hesitate to write, nor would I change, something like this:

    “It was amazingly hot”, he thought.

    Equally good would be:

    It was amazingly hot, he thought.

    It was amazingly hot, he thought.

    And any of these three styles works fine with the dialogue tag omitted.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’m fine with all of those too, but the choice should suit the context. Dialogue tags (‘I thought’, etc.) aren’t used in the book, or are used very seldom. And the thoughts-in-quotation-marks sometimes occur close to spoken dialogue which is styled identically, enclosed in quotation marks. So I had to pause and work out whether these lines were spoken or silent, which is work a reader shouldn’t be doing.

  6. Roger Hill says:

    Stan, you used the forward slash in your third para in order to isolate or set apart within the sentence. Elsewhere, isolation by slash mark may also emphasize, with less clutter than with, say, asterisks.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s true, Roger, and ~tildes~ may do this too – albeit more clutterily. I’ve seen a few other marks used for emphasis, but decided to stick to the main posse here.

  7. astraya says:

    When commenting in online forums, I use asterisks if there is no provision for italics. The text box here does not initially allow italics. Maybe I can create italics by using angle bracket i, but that, if it works, is very tedious. I might do it once or twice, but I wouldn’t want to do it too many times.

    The text editor for my WordPress blog has an italics button, but I generally prepare my posts in Pages for Mac. Italics do not survive the copy-and-paste, so I type asterisks in Pages, even though I then have to change the words to italics and delete the asterisks.

    The other text editor I type in the most – the one in ELL Stack Exchange – has an italics button, but also automatically converts asterisk-word-asterisk to italics, whether it is typed into the box or copied-and-pasted from another source.

    All up, using asterisks for emphasis is possibly the best all-round solution in the absence of being sure that italics will travel with the text. While single quotation marks take up less space, they can be mistaken for ‘other things’.

  8. […] By coincidence, I recently looked at the use of quotation marks for emphasis. […]

  9. I wondered if it was actually a quote more for the cyclist’s attitude and a general sense of a dynamic buzz around the sport. Cycling is a niche sport, imho. Although events, like for instance the Grand Depart in Yorkshire, can increase its vitality, and importance and profile in a local sports scene. Isolated words in quotation marks take on the appearance of scare quotes unless providing textual evidence in a literary analysis. The idea of questioning the actual status of the sport while conveying the mood of participants could be valid but might have been clearer phrased another way, and anyway of course I read your article round the example excerpt in question and that might not have been the actual intention.
    How often are quote marks really used for emphasis? Do you think how honest we are feeling affects our choice of emphasis punctuation, by instinctual crossreference to scare-quote punctuation? How do the two concepts and/or usages relate?

    Donald Trump used double quotes around isolated words as if for emphasis in a tweet, which is what brought me here.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Quote marks are used for emphasis quite a lot in unedited writing. You’ll find plenty of examples in this Flickr group. But the practice is rare in edited prose, which is why I took an interest in the cycling example. I don’t know if how honest we’re feeling affects the choice.

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