Emphasis Matters when it comes to SAT Reading

If you are looking to improve your reading ability, you need to understand the common ways professional writers nudge the reader into understanding what points are more important and what points are less important. This is subtle, but creates clarity.

Let’s start by looking at a sentence with weak or unintended emphasis.

While John was being strangled, the pot of chili bubbled on the stove.

Now, the meaning is not unclear here. We have 2 actions: John is being murdered and some chili is cooking. BUT the emphasis is all wrong. This indicates that we should care more about the chili than a man being murdered. A better organization that uses emphasis more effectively would be the following.

As the pot of chili bubbled on the stove, the assailant strangled John. 

You may argue with me that both sentences are equally clear to you, but remember these are fairly simple sentences, and on the SAT you will find much more complex sentences with long strings of modifying phrases to muddy your comprehension.

The second sentence is stronger for the following reasons.

a) The most important information is contained in the Independent (Main) Clause. This sentence is composed of 2 clauses, one dependent/subordinate (As the pot of chili bubbled on the stove) and one independent (The assailant strangled John). The dependent clause cannot stand alone as a sentence, and so it is dependent on the other clause. This dependency indicates that information is less important than the information in the independent clause. In the first version of the sentence, the writer is indicating that the pot of chili is more important than John being strangled.

**TEST TIP: If you are struggling with a reading passage and getting lost in a sea of words, try just reading the independent clauses, stripping away the modifiers, phrases and dependent clauses. You will get the main points of the passage and then can start building meaning by adding back in the modifiers.

b) End emphasis can be important. In formal writing, the key ideas appear either at the beginning, which is less formal, or at the end, which is more formal/literary. The SAT passages tend to be more formal, and so the writers tend to use end emphasis. By placing John  at the end of the rewritten sentence, I am signaling to the reader that he/she needs to pay attention to John because he is more important than the pot of chili. In general, pay the most attention the end, then the beginning and the rest in the middle should be the least important. But remember this is a tendency and not a hard rule that applies to every sentence because concision, flow, and other factors can influence sentence structure.

c) Watch out for hidden actors. In the first version of the sentence we have a hidden actor in a passive sentence. “While John was being strangled (by the assailant)” is a weak sentence because the passive construction allows the author to hide the actor (the assailant–he’s kind of important, being a killer and all). The second version reorders the clause into an active construction and allows John to appear at the end.

Other means of adding emphasis

Strong writers will use additional techniques to signal to the reader what pieces of information are most important.


The repetition of words, ideas and syntax all should alert you as the reader that the writer wants you to pay particular attention to certain pieces of information.

Short Sentences/Paragraphs

A short sentence in a sea of longer ones is a signal that the information in the sentence is of key importance. Similarly, a paragraph that is composed of a single sentence (or two) should be conveying key information.


If the writer devotes a lot of space to describing something in detail, then you should pay attention to that idea. You don’t necessarily need to understand all the details surrounding it, but you should recognize that the writer is emphasizing that idea.

SAT Writing & Language

The above information applies to the Writing section as well when you are choosing “best” answers, keep in mind that you may want to maintain the emphasis found in the rest of a paragraph/passage.


Raise your Reading Score

Get step by step guidance to improve your SAT reading

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.