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I'm not sure if I can ask this question here, because it is more of a writing issue. My native language is French and I have been reading and watching stuff in English and I am quite fluent with the language now (I think).

Though I find some things kind of weird as to emphasised words in sentences. For example, the following sentence (seen this somewhere on the internet, not really important) :

So what can you do?

To me, the emphasis is on the wrong word here. It does not punch enough. In French, I would rather write it like this:

So what can you do?

It is not the first time that I see emphasised words in a sentence and I think: well I feel like the emphasis is on the wrong word. It could be moved to another word to make the sentence more punchy.

Am I the only one who finds this weird? Any other french-speaking people here that feels the same as I do?

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You may find useful information in this related question –  user16269 Sep 27 '12 at 21:06
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@marco-fiset: I don't speak French like a native, so I might be wrong, but I think it's just a quirk of pouvoir that in French you wouldn't use stressed "Qu'est-ce que vous pouvez faire?" as a response to someone who'd just told you what he couldn't do. In English it's a natural thing to say. –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '12 at 21:46

2 Answers 2

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Which word you emphasize depends on what you are trying to say.

"So what can you do?" puts the emphasis on the other person's ability or lack of ability. Like if you got a new assistant, and you assigned him some task and he did it very badly, and so you assigned him another task and he did that very badly also, you might plaintively ask, "So what can you do?"

"So what can you do?" puts the emphasis on the other person as an individual. If several other people have just volunteered to perform whatever tasks and one person is sitting there doing nothing, you might ask him, "So what can you do?"

Update After Reading JR

Good point, let's consider all possible emphases. In context each might have other meanings, but obvious interpretations of emphasizing each of the remaining three words are:

"So what can you do?" Given what has gone before, what can you do now.

"So what can you do?" Of the possible tasks that someone might be capable of, which are you able to do? (This might mean of all possibl tasks in the world, or of all tasks that need to be done right now.) Pretty similar to emphasizing "can", I think.

"So what can you do?" What are you capable of actually performing, as opposed to just talking about it.

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+1 for "plaintively". :) –  Marthaª Sep 27 '12 at 20:36

If the emphasis seems like it's on the wrong word, there's a good chance that's why the italics were used in the first place. In the sentence

So what can you do?

the emphasis can be put in a number of places (I can think of four, although there may be five). That said, the objective is not to put the emphasis where the sentence packs the most punch, but to put it where it most closely conveys the author's intended point of emphasis (or, in the case of a direct quotation, where the speaker put the most emphasis in the original).

Put another way, I'm more likely use italics when the emphasis is found where it's least expected. If the italicized emphasis is located where it seems most natural, then there isn't such a need to use the italics. (Otherwise, we'd be emphasizing a word in every sentence and clause, to the point where it would be ridiculous!)

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+1 You said it. (Wish I said it.) –  bib Sep 27 '12 at 21:52
    
Given there are only five words, I expect the one you're not sure about is the first word. That would be where So means This being so (i.e. - in light of recent events or information). You can even contrive contexts where various pairs of words can both carry emphasis in one utterance. –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '12 at 21:56
    
@Fumble: Actually, the word I had the hardest time emphasizing was the what – at least, that one sounded the most unnatural to me. –  J.R. Sep 28 '12 at 0:21
    
@J.R. Well, after listening to "I will do such things - What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be The terrors of the earth!" one of the assembled company might have said "So, King Lear, what [exactly] can you do?". –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '12 at 2:48
    
@FumbleFingers: Well done! Hence the "although there may be five" part of my original assertion (I was pretty sure someone on EL&U would be able to come up with a suitable example!) –  J.R. Sep 28 '12 at 8:52

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