Mastering the Power of Intonation

Learn how you can use intonation to add emphasis, express emotion, and ask questions in English.

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By Barney Meekin · May 20, 2024 · 9 minute read

Intonation works together with word stress to create music-like sounds and give English its rhythm. But intonation is more than just rhythm. It also affects meaning. The same sentence can go from being a positive comment to being a criticism with a change in intonation. Intonation gives your sentences more depth. It adds layers to what you’re saying, layers that aren’t clear from the words alone.

By the end of this article, you’ll know all about intonation, and how you can use it to add emphasis, express emotions, and ask questions.

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What is intonation?

Intonation is the way our voice rises and falls to add emphasis, express emotion, or ask a question. Intonation in speech helps you communicate more than just the words you’re saying. In combination with the words and grammar you use, intonation is the changes in the pitch of your voice to communicate.

Intonation is an important part of English pronunciation. Some elements of pronunciation affect clarity — individual sounds, connected speech, etc. But like sentence stress, intonation affects meaning too.

What’s the difference between intonation and inflection

Intonation and inflection both relate to changes in the pitch of your voice but they function differently in communication.

Intonation refers to the overall pitch pattern of a sentence or phrase, helping to communicate the speaker's attitude or emotion. For example, when you ask a yes-or-no question in English, your voice typically rises at the end of the sentence, as in "Are you coming to the ↗party?"

Inflection is the changes in pitch within individual words. This change often affects the word’s grammatical function. For example, you can use a change in the pitch of your voice to turn a statement into a question: A rising inflection on the word “going” changes "You're ↘going" (statement) into "You're ↗going?" (question). The word "going" stays the same, but the pitch change at the end turns the statement into a question.

Types of intonation patterns in English

There are several common intonation patterns in English. Understanding these patterns can help you express yourself more clearly and connect with your audience. That’s because they add depth, emphasis, and emotion to your conversations. Let’s take a look at the common intonation patterns.

1. Rising intonation

This is when the pitch of your voice rises at the end of a sentence or phrase. Yes-or-no questions (“Do you want a ↗drink?”), polite requests (“Could you please pass the ↗salt?”) or question tags that require an answer (“You didn’t lose it, did ↗you?”) all have rising intonation.

2. Falling intonation

Falling intonation — when the pitch of your voice falls at the end of a sentence or phrase — is the most common kind of intonation in English. Statements (“Nice to meet ↘you”), commands (Close the ↘door), Wh- questions (What time will you be ↘home?), questions tags that don’t need an answer (“It’s a nice day, isn’t ↘it?) all have falling intonation.

Note: You might hear people end statements with rising intonation (especially in countries like Australia and the USA) — but this isn’t standard. This is called upspeak or high rising terminal (HRT) and it has the effect of making you sound uncertain. Although, it can also make you sound more friendly and approachable. Try not to end statements with rising intonation too much or you might confuse or even annoy your listeners.

3. Rising-falling intonation

In many sentences and phrases, you should combine rising and falling intonation. Rising-falling intonation is when the pitch rises and then falls within a sentence or phrase.

Check out these examples that have rising-falling intonation:

  • Rising-falling intonation for choices:

    • Do you speak ↗Spanish or ↘French?”
  • Rising-falling intonation when making lists:

    • You need ↗eggs, ↗flour, and ↘sugar
  • Rising-falling intonation for conditional structures:

    • If it rains ↗tomorrow, we’ll stay at ↘home”

Everything we’ve looked at so far is simple. But intonation can also communicate more complicated things.

For example, unfinished thoughts have rising-falling intonation.

  • Did you enjoy the meal? The ↗salad was ↘nice

They liked the salad but what about the rest? The speaker here has left a lot unsaid and the rising-falling intonation shows they don’t want to share their full opinion. Here you see an example of how intonation adds layers to the things you say.

4. Falling-rising intonation

Falling-rising intonation is when the pitch rises and then falls — unlike the previous examples, this usually happens within one word. This shows two things.

First, this pattern shows the speaker isn’t certain of the answer they’re giving, or perhaps they don’t want to answer at all.

For example:

  • What were you doing on Saturday at 8 pm? I don’t ↘re↗member.

Second, it can also show politeness and uncertainty when asking a question.

For example:

  • Do you think it would be ↘O↗K?

5. Flat intonation

Finally, we have flat intonation when the pitch stays the same throughout the sentence or phrase. Flat intonation shows you don’t care or are not interested in the subject. It shows that you would like to change the topic and move on to the next thing.

How intonation affects meaning

Intonation helps communicate the speaker's emotions or attitudes. And by adjusting the pitch of our voice, we can change the meaning of what we're saying.

Let’s look at some examples.

  • “That’s a great ↘idea” sounds like a real compliment. "That's a great ↗idea" with an exaggerated rising intonation, sounds sarcastic. It sounds like the speaker actually thinks it’s a terrible idea.

  • "You're going to wear ↗that?" sounds like a genuine question. "You're going to wear ↘that?" sounds more like a judgment or criticism of the person's clothing choice.

  • "I can't believe you did ↗that" shows surprise or even excitement. But "I can't believe you did ↘that" shows disappointment.

This means you need to be aware of intonation when speaking English. Because if you aren’t, you could — unintentionally — give someone the wrong impression.

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Practical tips for improving intonation

So now you know how important intonation is in English, it’s time to make sure you use the correct intonation when you’re talking. It’s not easy but we’ve compiled some tips and tools from Busuu to help you figure it out.

1. Listen to native speakers via Busuu’s new video bites

One of the best ways to improve your intonation is to listen to native speakers, pay close attention to the sounds they make, and then try to mimic their intonation and stress patterns. Busuu has released new video bites where you can listen to native speakers pronounce words and sentences with the right intonation that you can listen to and mimic.

You can also watch movies, listen to podcasts, or listen to everyday conversations. Keep listening to the video bites on your Busuu web or mobile app and repeat this activity together with the other activities we mentioned, until your pronunciation sounds like the pronunciation you’re copying.

2. Record yourself

When you’ve built up some awareness of the sounds (and you know what it should sound like), you can start to self-assess your own pronunciation. Record yourself speaking. Compare the recording to native speakers saying the same things and identify what you are or aren’t doing well.

3. Practice using Busuu’s Conversation exercises

Busuu offers an online learning tool in both web and mobile apps called Conversation exercises where you can practice with fellow learners. These exercises allow you to speak about a topic and receive feedback on pronunciation and intonation from people in the Busuu community who are native speakers of that language.

Busuu's advanced matching algorithm chooses appropriate learners from the community to engage in Conversations with you, or you have the option to send your exercises to individuals on your friends list.

When you motivate yourself to say something new in the language you are learning, you can expedite the learning process and prepare yourself for having authentic conversations in that language, complete with the right intonation and correct pronunciation.

4. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate

When you’re practicing your intonation, don’t be afraid to exaggerate the ups and downs of your voice. It might sound silly but that’s not a problem — you’re just practicing. This can help you get a feel for the rhythm of English and it’ll make you more aware of the different intonation patterns.

Intonation is important for effective communication

Intonation is just one part of English pronunciation. But because it can affect meaning, it’s one you need to be aware of. It sounds crazy but simple sentences can have opposite meanings due to very slight changes in the intonation. This means that using the wrong intonation risks confusing your listeners. And in some cases, you could even upset or annoy them.

Learning natural intonation isn’t easy. By following the tips in this article, you’ll be on the right track to mastering English intonation. And you can avoid confusing or offending your listeners.

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