English Intonation

(Tip: Listen while you read!)

What is Intonation?

Intonation is the “music” or “melody” of speech. It’s the way the pitch or sound of a person’s voice rises and falls while speaking.


How is it Used in Speech?

When someone raises or lowers their pitch while speaking, it can mean different things:

  • A raised or rising pitch means:
    *The speaker is changing subjects.
    *The speaker is taking over from another speaker.
  • A much higher or lower pitch on a word/phrase:
    *It’s the focus of the speaker’s message.
    *The speaker is feeling a strong emotion, like excited or angry.

Common English Intonation Patterns

There are three main intonation patterns in English: falling, rising, and fall-rise.

1) Falling Intonation  ➘

  • Indicates something is definite or complete
  • The pitch falls on the last stressed syllable of a phrase.

Here’s your wallet.

I can’t find it.

  • Common in wh- questions

What time is the movie?

Where’s your teacher?

2) Rising Intonation ➚

  • Common in yes/no questions
  • The pitch rises on the last stressed syllable of a phrase / group of words.

Are you happy?

Is that your teacher?

3) Fall-Rise Intonation ➘➚

  • Something is incomplete or uncertain.
  • There’s more to be said.

I don’t play soccer.

(This implies that something more is coming, and that maybe I play something else, as in “I don’t play soccer. I play tennis.”)

My first day was great.

(This implies that perhaps the second day was not great, and that something more is coming.)

  • In questions: Makes them more friendly or polite.

What’s your name?

Is this your purse?

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