Lesson #165: Affirming Something Emphatically With ‘The’, ‘Do’, or ‘Did’

📗 The fire being lit, the hearth swept, and a small kettle of a very antique pattern, such as I thought I remembered to have seen in old farmhouses in England, placed over the now ruddy flame, Frances’ hands were washed, and her apron removed in an instant; then she opened a cupboard, and took out a tea-tray, on which she had soon arranged a china tea-equipage, whose pattern, shape, and size, denoted a remote antiquity; a little, old-fashioned silver spoon was deposited in each saucer; and a pair of silver tongs, equally old-fashioned, were laid on the sugar-basin; from the cupboard, too, was produced a tidy silver cream-ewer, not larger then an egg-shell. While making these preparations, she chanced to look up, and, reading curiosity in my eyes, she smiled and asked— 

‘Is this like England, monsieur?’ 

‘Like the England of a hundred years ago,’ I replied. 

‘Is it truly? Well, everything on this tray is at least a hundred years old: these cups, these spoons, this ewer, are all heirlooms; my great-grandmother left them to my grandmother, she to my mother, and my mother brought them with her from England to Switzerland, and left them to me; and, ever since I was a little girl, I have thought I should like to carry them back to England, whence they came.’

– Charlotte Bronte, The Professor (1857)


I can remember having a coffee with a friend a few years ago, shortly after he had been offered a new job, a teaching position at a prestigious (famous, with a good reputation) institution. Let’s say for this example that it was the University of Oxford. As we were seated at a table, another friend of his came by and my friend shared his good news. When he told his friend that the job was ‘at Oxford’, his friend replied, ‘What, the Oxford?’ 

This other friend used the definite article ‘the’ to emphasise his surprise and the particularity of the University of Oxford. If you listen to English conversations often, you will notice that this is something that English speakers often use when they want to emphasise something.

In fact, there are 3 possible words you could add to different sentences to emphasise something – ‘the’, ‘do’ and its past tense ‘did’ – which we will look at here in today’s lesson.

Our literary examples are taken directly from the words of The Professor (1857), Charlotte Bronte’s first completed novel and the story of an English language teacher’s work among Belgian students.

📝 ‘THE’ 

We know that ‘the’ can be added to a sentence to affirm an emphasis, as William Crimsworth (the professor and narrator) does in his observation, when he prepares to have tea with his student, Frances Henri, in her humble home:

📗 ‘Is this like England, monsieur?’

‘Like the England of a hundred years ago,’ I replied. 

– Charlotte Bronte, The Professor (emphasis mine)

English speakers pronounce this emphatic ‘the’ differently from the regular definite article ‘the’. An emphatic ‘the’ is pronounced like ‘thee’, whereas a definite article is usually pronounced something like ‘thuh’

The emphatic ‘the’ is always placed before the noun it wishes to emphasise and, if there is an adjective involved, before the adjective before the noun. For example, Crimsworth could have answered the above question as follows if he had wanted to add an adjective: ‘Like the (traditional / classical / old-fashioned / familiar, etc.) England of a hundred years ago.’

📝 ‘DO’

While the emphatic ‘the’ is always placed before a noun, an emphatic ‘do’ is placed before the verb that you would like to emphasise. This ‘do’ has a different function from the ‘do’ as found in normal questions, negations, and short answers: its function is merely to emphasise something, so it is not grammatically needed there (as the other types of ‘do’ are) for its sentence to make sense. In other words, if you can remove the ‘do’ from a sentence and it still makes sense to you, then you have an ’emphatic do’.

Look at these following examples of conversations between Crimsworth, the English language teacher, and his Swiss student, Madmoiselle Frances Henri:

📗 She put some pistolets on the table; she made the tea, as foreigners do make tea— i.e., at the rate of a teaspoonful to half-a-dozen cups; she placed me a chair, and, as I took it, she asked, with a sort of exaltation— 

‘Will it make you think yourself at home for a moment?’

– Charlotte Bronte, The Professor (emphasis mine)  

👉 See how the emphatic ‘do’, like the emphatic ‘the’, is not actually necessary for understanding the sentence’s meaning: Charlotte Bronte could easily have excluded it and written, ‘… she made the tea, as foreigners make tea …’.

But by inserting ‘do’, Bronte is emphasising their habit of making tea in a very distinctive way. 

I will quote the next example within the larger passage of which it is a part, so that you can enjoy a little more of this pleasant story. Hunsden here is a good friend of the young English teacher Crimsworth.

📗 Hunsden rose. ‘Good bye,’ said he to Frances; ‘I shall be off for this glorious England to-morrow, and it may be twelve months or more before I come to Brussels again; whenever I do come I’ll seek you out, and you shall see if I don’t find means to make you fiercer than a dragon …’

  – Charlotte Bronte, The Professor (emphasis mine)   

In the following example, you will notice how ‘do’ is sometimes used in front of an imperative command. This serves to make the command more emphatic but also more polite at the same time, because the speaker is actually stressing that he/she thinks the listener is able to do the command’s action. Consider how Crimsworth uses it here to urge Frances Henri to share her thoughts with him:

📗 ‘Do speak, I urged; and a very low, hurried, yet still arch voice said— 

‘Monsieur, vous me faites mal; de grace lachez un peu ma main droite.’

In truth I became aware that I was holding the said “main droite” in a somewhat ruthless grasp: I did as desired; and, for the third time, asked more gently— ‘Frances, how much regard have you for me?’

    – Charlotte Bronte, The Professor (emphasis mine)     

📝 ‘DID’

The ’emphatic did’, as I am calling it here, is simply the past tense of the ’emphatic do’. It stresses that something did really happen in the past – it should not be doubted, it cannot be denied. 

The following example is drawn from a scene in the story where William Crimsworth is surprised to learn from his pupil Frances that, even before he began teaching her, she was actually nearly fluent in English. Notice the past tense that is used in the descriptive (second) paragraph here: as such, Bronte needed to insert the past ‘did’ in place of the present ‘do’.

📗 [Frances speaking] ‘I am glad you have been forced to discover so much of my nature; you need not so carefully moderate your language. Do you think I am myself a stranger to myself? What you tell me in terms so qualified, I have known fully from a child.’

She did say this as plainly as a frank and flashing glance could, but in a moment the glow of her complexion, the radiance of her aspect, had subsided; if strongly conscious of her talents, she was equally conscious of her harassing defects, and the remembrance of these obliterated for a single second, now reviving with sudden force, at once subdued the too vivid characters in which her sense of her powers had been expressed. So quick was the revulsion of feeling, I had not time to check her triumph by reproof; ere I could contract my brows to a frown she had become serious and almost mournful-looking.

    – Charlotte Bronte, The Professor (emphasis mine)     


👉 As mentioned before, all of these emphatic words can be excluded from the sentences they are in and the meaning would remain the same. What is added by their presence is a stress, an emphasis, something that is meant to capture the listener’s attention. They are very valuable in written English especially, where there is no audible (voiced) emphasis to express the same.

👉 In spoken English, remember that these words will actually sound different from the customary ‘the’, ‘did’, ‘do’: not only is the emphatic ‘the’ always pronounced with an ‘ee’ sound, but the ‘do’ can also sometimes be said with more of an ‘ooo’ sound too – longer and more drawn out. Similarly, the emphatic ‘did’ usually sounds a bit stronger, more confident and decisive, than otherwise. 

I hope this lesson – taught with the invaluable aid of another English teacher from the past, William Crimsworth – helps you to use these three simple but strong words confidently in your own English expression!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)