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: 4.5 (41 votes)
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Submitted by davide.bellelli on Mon, 18/03/2024 - 08:09


Question: Ex. 1, "No sooner HAD the tickets gone on sale than they sold out".

Would also WERE in this case be possible?

Hi davide.bellelli,

We can use "were" if we also delete "gone": No sooner were the tickets on sale ...


LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Uyen123 on Thu, 29/02/2024 - 09:29


Hi, I would appreciate your help on this matter. Which one is correct?

  • It is [me/ I] who [do/ does] the cleaning.
  • It is you who [is/ are] the new secretary. 

Is there any grammar rule behind this or it's just commonly used so?

Thank you!

Hello Uyen123,

In more formal language, we generally use the verb form that agrees with the pronoun and we use 'I' over 'me': 'It is I who do the cleaning' and 'It is you who are the new secretary'.

In informal language, we generally use the third-person form: 'It's me who does the cleaning' and 'It's you who's the new secretary'.

Those forms are all correct, but, for what it's worth, I would feel a little strange saying these and would prefer 'I'm the one who does the cleaning' or 'You're the one who's the new secretary'.

All the best,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Притрушенко on Wed, 15/11/2023 - 20:17


Hello. Could you please explain why future continuous is used in example 4 (test 1)? Is it used because the person that the speaker is talking to hasn't taken the job yet? Would "Not only will you do what you love..." imply a higher degree of certainty of the future? Or does it mean that the job is going to be temporary?

4. You should take that job. Not only will you be doing what you love, you'll also make more money.

Thanks for your attention.

Hello Pritrushenko,

Yes, the sentence 'You should take that job' shows that the person spoken to hasn't yet taken the job. In general I understand the continuous aspect ('will be doing') is used to emphasise the new and different nature of the new job -- it implies that the person's current job isn't one they enjoy and the new one will be.

Another way of thinking about it is that the point of the new job is that it will mean the person will be involved in doing things that they love. So there is a focus on the activities involved in doing the job. We use the continuous aspect to add this layer of meaning.

Does that make sense? By the way, would you mind using the Roman alphabet for your username? Just so everyone can read your name.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Khoshal on Fri, 06/10/2023 - 15:59


Hello teacher,

I have few questions:
1. Why we don't use question mark with inversions although they follow the same structure of question?
2. Can we use adverbs of frequency (sometimes, always, and often) with inversion?
3. In conditional sentences, we replace if by using inversion. Do we need comma to separate these clauses? Peter’s example: Had you not invited him he would not be here.

Thank you,

Hi Khoshal,

I'll try to help with your questions!

  1. Although there is inversion, these are still affirmative sentences. They aren't directly requesting a response from the reader/listener.
  2. Only if the adverb of frequency is negative or limiting, e.g. rarely or never. The adverbs you mentioned are not negative or limiting so they aren't used in inversion.
  3. A comma is typically used if the inversion is the first clause in the sentence, and if I were taking an exam I'd add a comma. However, in less formal situations it's common to omit the comma. If the inversion is the second clause in the sentence, a comma isn't usually used.

I hope that helps.


LearnEnglish team

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