Emphasis: cleft sentences, inversion and auxiliaries

Emphasis: cleft sentences, inversion and auxiliaries

Do you know how to add emphasis using cleft sentences, inversion or auxiliaries? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

Look at these examples to see how we use these structures.

What he loves about hiking is that it doesn't feel like exercise.
Not only did she sing at the talent show, she also danced!
I know it may surprise you, but I really do know quite a bit about this.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Grammar C1: Emphasis: 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

We can use different grammatical structures to add emphasis, either to a whole sentence or to highlight one particular part of it.

Cleft sentences

Cleft sentences allow us to emphasise different parts of the sentence, depending on which part is the most important. Cleft sentences are usually introduced by it or by a clause beginning with what.

Cleft sentences beginning with it

Here is a simple sentence with no particular emphasis.

You invited me to the party yesterday.

We can emphasise different elements of this sentence by 'fronting' them, that is, moving them to the front of the sentence after it + be.

It was you who invited me to the party yesterday.
Emphasis: you (not another person)

It was yesterday that you invited me to the party.
Emphasis: yesterday (not another time)

It was the party that you invited me to yesterday.
Emphasis: the party (not another event)

Cleft sentences beginning with what

What clauses + be are common in spoken English. They emphasise the part of the sentence that is outside the what clause.

What I like best about going to the cinema is talking about the film afterwards.
What drives me up the wall is people talking during the film. 
What I found was that the films my friends liked were very different from the ones I liked.

This kind of cleft sentence can also begin with where, why, who, how, etc.

How the kids did this is still unclear to me. 

We can also put the what clause at the end of the sentence.

The game we played was what I liked the most.

Inversion with negative adverbials

We can also use inversion to add emphasis. It has a more formal, persuasive and impressive effect.

To invert a sentence, we put the adverbial (e.g. never, rarely, not only, etc.) at the beginning and change the normal position of the subject and the auxiliary verb.

Rarely have I read such an original story.
(I have rarely read such an original story.)

If there is no auxiliary verb, we need to add one.

Not only do they have live reptiles but you can also touch them.
(They not only have live reptiles but you can also touch them.)

Little, no sooner and not

Some other negative words and expressions used like this are little, no sooner, never and not.

Little did I realise that the restaurant was about to close. 
(I didn't realise that the restaurant was about to close.)

No sooner had we got inside than the concert ended!

Not a single positive comment did I hear from Will.

Emphatic auxiliaries

In spoken English, we often stress the auxiliary verb to add emphasis.

A: Why aren't you coming to my birthday party?
B: I am coming! Who told you I'm not?!

If there is no auxiliary verb, we can use do, does or did to add emphasis. This works in both spoken and written English.

A: I know you weren't keen on the exhibition.
B: I did like some of it. (You thought I didn't like it.)

A: Maybe that's why she was so happy.
B: That does make sense, actually. (I hadn't understood why before.)

In British English, do can also be used this way to make a command more emphatic. This sounds quite formal.

Do sit down, please.
Do be quiet!

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Grammar C1: Emphasis: 2

Language level

Average: 4.4 (17 votes)
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Submitted by Vladrose1 on Mon, 04/09/2023 - 17:32


Hello, There is this sentence in the second test:
7. In an emergency, what you should do first is call your family.

My question is why you used the word call and not calling? Thank you very much for your cooperation. Best regards, Vladimir

Hi Vladrose1,

Thanks for your question. You may be interested to read the comment from Peter M. below on this same page on 19/07/2023 about this question.


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Risa warysha on Tue, 29/08/2023 - 11:41


Hello, teachers
I found a sentence in one passage "Even more striking was the fact that the collision between the robot Land Rover and the Tahoe was the only scrape in the entire competition."
Is the sentence using an inversion form? If so, why is it? Or are there any other rules to use inversion?

Thank you very much

Hello Risa warysha,

Yes, there is inversion in this sentence. The non-inverted word order would be something like this:

The fact that the collision between the robot Land Rover and the Tahoe was the only scrape in the entire competition was even more striking.

This is an example of inversion using an adjective to begin the sentence. It's an unusual form which we most often use when the adjective describes our reaction and we use a comparative or superlative form, or else use 'so... that':

Most surprising was....

Less worrying is...

So large was... that...


There are many forms of inversion. I can put a few below for you.


After negative adverbial expressions, especially those containing ‘no’
Under no circumstances can we accept credit cards.
In no way can he be held responsible.
At no time did she say she would come.
At no point was the price mentioned.
Not until I heard my name did I believe I had won the race.

After adverbial expressions of place
Round the corner came the postman.
On the doorstep was a bunch of flowers.

After 'seldom', 'rarely', 'never', and 'little'
Seldom have I seen such a beautiful view.
Never had I felt so happy.
Little did he imagine how dangerous it would be.

After 'hardly', 'scarcely', 'barely', 'no sooner', when one thing happens after another
Hardly had I begun to speak when I was interrupted.
Scarcely had we started our meal when the phone rang.
No sooner had I arrived than they all started to argue.

NB:     hardly, scarcely and barely are followed by when; no sooner is followed by than. 

After adverbial expressions beginning with 'only' and 'not only’
Only after the meeting did I realise the importance of the subject.
Only when the plane landed safely did he calm down.
Not only was the car slow, it was also very uncomfortable.

In past conditional sentences we can sometimes replace the 'if' with an inversion
Had you not invited him he would not be here.
Had I known it would be so difficult I would never have enrolled.

In expressions with 'here' and ‘there' as adverbs of place
Here comes the bus.
There goes all our money!

With verbs of reporting such as 'say' or 'ask' in direct speech
"I love you,” said Harry.
"How far is it?" asked the passenger.

In expressions with ‘so (+adjective)’ or ‘such (+be+noun)’
So terrifying was it that I had to stop watching.
Such was the dream that I had.



I hope that's helpful.



The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by AboodKh9 on Sun, 13/08/2023 - 00:28


Hello team!
I have a question:
It was yesterday that you invited me to the party. Why didn't use (when) instead of (that)?

Hello AboodKh9,

You could use 'when' here and it would not change the meaning. This is an example of what are sometimes called cleft sentences. These are grammatical constructions which serve to add rhetorical emphasis to certain parts of the sentence. For example:

You invited me to the party yesterday > It was yesterday that/when...

Peter wrote this book > It was Peter who/that wrote this book

We got to know each other in school > It was school where we got to know each other/It was in school that we got to know each other

You can read more about these constructions here:




The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by IsabellaLearnEnglish on Tue, 18/07/2023 - 09:11


Dear team,

Would you mind explaining the structure of the 7th sentence in Test 2? Why is the correct answer 'is' and not 'is to' or 'is (calling)'?

If there are any mistakes in my question, please help me correct them. Thank you for your time.

Best Regards,

Hello Isabella,

The full sentence is:

In an emergency, what you should do first is call your family.

The reason we use 'call' here is because we have the verb 'do'. If you change this verb, you'll change the form which follows. For example, compare these sentences:

At a party, what I like is watching how people try to impress each other.

At a party, what I do is watch how people try to impress each other.



The LearnEnglish Team

Hi. I still was a little confused. I still think the right answer is "calling" or "to call", no matter there is a "do" or not in the sentence, as "what you should do first" is the subject of the complex sentence, "is" is the link verb, so there should be infinitive verb or gerund followed "is". Or it is the fixed expression in English. Hope to receive your explanation. Thank you so much.