Intonation

Information Focus

Content words (see section on Rhythm) in spoken sentences are the words that are most important, the words that are stressed. Some sentences may have three, four, five or more content words that are stressed. However, not all the content words have the same stress.

There is always one word that has the most stress and emphasis in the sentence. This word is sometimes called the information focus word.

The information focus word will have different pitch (highness or lowness of a sound) and intonation (the rise and fall of pitch when speaking) than the other words in the sentence. English speakers use intonation and pitch to focus the listeners attention on what is important in the message. (Other languages use word order to show this emphasis).

On the information focus word, the intonation will usually rise on that word (or stressed syllable- if more than one syllable) and then go back down. The pitch may also remain up, depending on the sentence type. Short sentences, clauses and phrases usually only have one information focus word because having more than one is confusing to the listener. The information focus word is usually the last word or near the end of the sentence, but not always.

Listen to the following sentences and note the rising pitch of the information focus word. The content words are in bold, the information focus word (or stressed syllable) is in italics.

 

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What did you eat?
 

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     I ate an apple pie.
 

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What’s the matter with you?
 

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     I’m upset because I just lost my job.
 

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When are you coming over tonight?
 

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     I’ll be there at 7:00.
 

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Would you like to go to the movies with me?  
 

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      Sure, when?  
 

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Why is the chicken burnt?    
 

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     Because I had the oven set to high.

 

 Intonation Patterns

There are three basic pitches in English- these are normal, high, and low. There is also a very high pitch, which is used to express strong emotions such as surprise, anger, or fear. (The very high pitch will not be covered in this text).

The normal pitch is where the voice usually is.

High is where the voice rises to indicate information focus.

Low is where the voice falls, usually at the end of sentences.

In most conversations the voice is normal at the beginning of the sentences, rises at the information focus word (or syllable), then falls back to normal, and drops to low at the end of the sentence. Look at the intonation patterns below.

There are different intonation patterns used for different types of sentences. The intonation pattern for statement, commands, and WH questions is basically the same- the voice starts at a normal pitch, rises at the intonation focus word, falls back to normal after the intonation focus word, and falls to low at the end of the sentence. With yes/no questions and requests, the pitch starts at normal and rises at the end of the sentence.

  Statements  

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I like riding horses.
 

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My English isn’t that good yet.
 Commands   

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Get off the horse now
 

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Give me the key.
 Wh questions  

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When do you go riding?
 

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Who do you like in the fifth?
 Yes/no questions  

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Do you ever fall off?
 

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Have you eaten yet?
 Requests   

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Could I have some money?
 

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Can I go with you sometime?

Content Words 

Usually the content words (see section on Rhythm) are the words that are stressed in a sentence, but they don’t have to be. The speaker has the choice of which words to stress and add emphasis to, depending on the message he or she is expressing. The change in intonation and pitch occurs under varying situations. Intonation can change: 

* to emphasize new information
* to give special meaning to certain words
* to offer open or closed choices
* when asking tag questions
* when talking about people
* when talking to people
* when giving lists

  Emphasizing New Information

Sentences may have the same content words, but may not have the same stress because of new information being presented. Look at this example.

 

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A: I need a pair of pants.
 

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B: What kind of pants? (‘Pants’ is old information, ‘kind’ is the new     information)
 

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C: Blue jeans.
 

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D: Any brand of jeans.
 

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D: No, Levi’s.

 Special Meaning

Stressing different words in a sentence can give special meaning to a word, and thus change the sentences meaning and focus. Look at these examples.

 

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Do you have a plate I could borrow for the night? (not some other day)
 

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Do you have a plate I could borrow for the night? (I’ll return it)
 

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Do you have a plate I could borrow for the night? (and not something else)
 

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Do you have a plate I could borrow for the night? (is one in your possession)
 

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Do you have a plate I could borrow for the night? (and not someone else)
 

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Do you have a plate I could borrow for the night? (yes or no)

Choice Questions

All choice questions have an ‘or’ in them and can either be open or closed question . 

Open and closed choice questions have different intonation patterns and require a different kind of answer. 

An open question is a kind of yes or no question. An open choice question has two possible intonation patterns. 

In the first, there is rising intonation after both choices.

In the second, there is rising intonation only after the second choice. Both can be answered
with a yes or no answer.

Look at the questions below. The meaning for both is does she like one or the other choices or something else. 

 

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A. Does she like chicken or meat?
 

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B. Does she like chicken or meat?
Possible answers    
     Yes, she likes chicken. or   Yes, she likes meat.
No, she doesn’t like either.
Yes, she likes both.
No, but she likes fish.

 

  A closed choice question has limited choices. It can not be answered with a yes or no, but with one or the other choices or neither. 

Note the difference in intonation patterns between an open choice and closed choice question. 

 

 

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A. Does she like chicken or meat?
Possible answers 
     She likes meat. or   She likes chicken.
She likes both.
She like neither.

Tag Questions

There are two different kinds of tag questions- one where the speaker is unsure of the answer and the other where the speaker expects agreement. Both questions have different intonation patterns. 

Speaker is unsure of the answer, speaker doesn’t know whether Susan has eaten or not.
 

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Susan ate, didn’t she?
Speaker expects a yes to the question, speaker expects Susan has eaten.
 

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Susan ate, didn’t she?

 

Talking to people

When talking directly to someone and using their name there are two information focus words- their name and the main information focus word. Both are stressed and both have rising intonation.

 

 

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Ms. Larson, are you well?
 

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Are you well, Ms. Larson?
 

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Did you see, Karen?      (did Karen, the person being talk to, see something)

 

Talking about people

When talking about another person the intonation remains normal, it doesn’t rise as when saying the person’s name. In written form, the difference between talking to and talking about a person is the use of a comma. A comma is NOT use when talking about a person, but a comma IS used if talking to a person. 

 

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Did you see Karen?     (did the listener see a person named Karen)  

Giving lists

When a list or a series if things are being said, the intonation rises on each item and falls after the last item. The falling intonation indicates to the listener that the list is finished.

 

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Samuel likes pizza, tacos, spaghetti, hamburgers, and hot dogs.
 

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Modes of transportation include cars, planes, boats, motorcycles, bicycles, and horses.



Intonation patterns in English -www.pronunciationtips.com