Lesson 3.3 Intonation

Listen to the two free podcasts on intonation by Matt Purland – Intonation – Podcast 1 (32 mins) and Sounds and Intonation – Podcast 2 (36 mins)

3.3.1  Along with the phonetic alphabet, sentence stress, and connected speech, intonation is an important element in learning English pronunciation. Read the information that follows and check that you understand it. You could discuss it with a partner or small group, and be sure to ask your teacher to explain anything you don’t understand.

1. In short, intonation means the ups and downs of the voice in a sentence. Good pronunciation involves three elements: sentence stress (the sound spine), connected speech (connecting syllables, not speaking word by word), and intonation. Varied intonation is more interesting than robotic, monotonous speech, and therefore easier and more appealing to listen to. For example, when reading aloud we should aim to “lift the words from the page” using intonation, rather than reading in a flat boring voice.

Stress is non-negotiable – the sound spine must be heard clearly – and connected speech is a must if you want to sound natural. But stress and connected speech are not enough – we need to use intonation. For example, we could have correct stress and connected speech, but still sound flat, dull, and emotionless. Without hearing emotion we cannot be sure of the speaker’s intention. English intonation is more familiar to speakers of some languages than others, e.g. European students of English may find English intonation patterns more familiar than speakers from the Middle East or the Far East. However, many non-English speakers of English would agree that English intonation (and stress) seem “too much” – too exaggerated – when compared with their language.

2. Let’s say that we are clear about the sound spine of our sentence and we are using connected speech. What about intonation? Standard (neutral) intonation in a statement (not a question) usually involves going on a journey: up the mountain and back down again. We usually go up around the middle of the sentence, and back down at the end. We must have closure. Let’s take an example of a short sentence. We go up in the middle, either: a) at a clause break, e.g.

or b) on the key concept word, e.g.

In a longer sentence, or a list, there will be more ups and downs. We have to decide which specific words or phrases are the most important in our communication. By “going up” on them we give them emphasis, e.g.

3. Intonation in questions usually depends on the kind of question:

a) For yes/no questions – we go up at the end (rising intonation). The listener feels compelled to answer,because we need closure. For example,

b) For wh- questions (what, where, when, etc.) – we go down at the end (falling intonation). For example:

c) When the speaker uses a question tag, they can go up if they want to check some information, e.g.

d) …and down if they are making a general statement and believe that the listener will agree, e.g.

We can add extra emphasis when replying to questions, depending on what part of the sentence the speaker asked about. In the sentence below there are seven possible wh- questions that could be asked.

For example, if somebody asked: “Who rode their bike to the city lake?” you could put extra emphasis on the name in the answer, by going up on the word “John”: John rode his bike to the city lake. or John did.

Other intonation techniques include:

  • Rising intonation at the end of a statement when we want to continue without being interrupted, e.g.

  • When making a list we use rising-falling intonation, e.g.

Be sure to get that closure at the end!

Function words are usually unstressed in standard English pronunciation, but we can use intonation to give them extra emphasis – to make our point. Each function word has a strong form and a weak form, so we can use the strong form if we want to emphasise that word. For example, the weak form of the auxiliary verb “have” is uhv, while the strong form is Hav – i.e. we hear the strong vowel sound a in the strong form, but in the weak form it is reduced to a schwa sound. Here is a sentence with neutral (normal, standard) intonation:

…while here is the same sentence but with specific intonation:

4. Another important use of intonation is to show mood, which helps to express intention and meaning. There are several invaluable tools in the intonation toolbox and each one is adjusted to convey mood, for example:

…and so on. An emotion like anger is a high-energy emotion and the speaker demands that the listener hears them clearly. The intonation toolbox enables this. On the other hand, sadness is a low-energy emotion and the speaker may be less focused on whether anybody is listening. The intonation tools used reflects this intention.

Of course, tone also depends on the personality of the individual person. For example, each person will “sound upset” in a different way. Furthermore, some people – typically men – will have a lower pitch range than others – typically women and children.

5. There are a number of short words and sounds that change their meanings completely depending on the intonation: 21-english-sounds-and-words-where-intonation-changes-the-meaning. If we do not use intonation, or use the wrong kind, our meaning might not be clear and communication may fail. For example:

3.3.2  Study the table of 21 English Sounds and Words where Intonation Changes the Meaning: 21-english-sounds-and-words-where-intonation-changes-the-meaning.There are some short sounds and words in English that have different meanings depending on the intonation. Practise saying them out loud. How many are familiar to you? How many are the same or similar in your first language? See how many you can hear when you are listening to real English conversations. You could create role plays with a partner where you use a number of these sounds or words. Note: if you listen to this podcast, you can hear (towards the end) all the short sounds and words being read aloud: Sounds and Intonation – Podcast 2 (36 mins).


1. What is… a) sentence stress, b) connected speech, c) intonation?

2. Draw the clause break in each sentence and draw intonation arrows in each:

a) I left early because I didn’t like the film.
b) It was past ten o’clock, so we had to go.
c) Jim bought some cornflakes and a pie.
d) The book was good at first, then boring.

3. Listen to four sentences and underline the key concept word or phrase in each one:

a) I got the tube to work today.
b) She left her brother at home.
c) There are three biscuits left.
d) I can’t find the remote control.

4. Draw arrows to show standard intonation in each question:

a) Do you like raw fish?
b) We both enjoyed the gig, didn’t we?
c) This is the right bus, isn’t it?
d) What’s the date today?

5. Listen to four questions. Match each question to an answer below:

a) Perry did.
c) Yes, he did.
d) Last week.

6. Write the tools in the intonation toolbox from the first letters:

a) t _ of v _
b) r _
c) e _ e _
d) p_ for e_
e) p _
f) s _
g) v _

7. Listen to the sentence read with different moods. Match each version to a mood below:

c) excited
f) apologetic

8. Complete the table to show what happens with four different moods. Write and read your own sentences out loud using the different moods:

9. Read each sentence out loud with neutral intonation, then in different moods (see Role Plays – Mood Chart: role-plays-mood-chart). Which tools from the intonation toolbox did you use to make each mood?

a) I’ve gone to the shops.
b) He lived in Birmingham all his life.
c) There are two sausages left in the oven.
d) The garden needs watering.

10. i) Listen and match each short sound or word with a meaning below:

a) I’m interested.
b) I’m disappointed.
c) I understand.
d) It smells delicious.
e) Stop! Come back!
f) Thinking what to say.

ii) Create a role play using only short sounds, intonation, and mime.

11.Discussion: How does your language compare to English when it comes to stress and intonation? Do you think there is too much of this in English? What short sounds do you use in your language, and what do they mean? List ones which are the same as in English. List ones which are different.