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 English for Learners 

Intonation in English Pronunciation
The falling and rising patterns of intonation.


What is intonation?

Intonation and stress are closely linked. In fact it's impossible to dissociate them. They go hand in hand.

Intonation is about how we say things, rather than what we say, the way the voice rises and falls when speaking, in other words the music of the language.

Just as words have stressed syllables, sentences have regular patterns of stressed words. In addition, the voice tends to rise, fall or remain flat depending on the meaning or feeling we want to convey (surprise, anger, interest, boredom, gratitude, etc.). Intonation therefore indicates the mood of the speaker.

There are two basic patterns of intonation in English: falling intonation and rising intonation.
In the following examples a downward arrow (➘) indicates a fall in intonation and an upward arrow (➚) indicates a rise in intonation.

Again, these are not rules but patterns generally used by native speakers of English.
Just remember that content words are stressed, and intonation adds attitude or emotion.

This explanation on intonation is intended to serve as a general guide to help learners.
It should in no way make them unnecessarily anxious!

It should be remembered that a written explanation can never be a substitute for a 'live' conversation with a native speaker.
Attitudinal intonation is something that is best acquired through talking and listening to English speakers.

Falling Intonation 

(The pitch of the voice falls at the end of the sentence.)
Falling intonation is the most common intonation pattern in English.
It is commonly found in statements, commands, wh-questions (information questions), confirmatory question tags and exclamations.

  • Statements
    • Nice to meet you.
    • I’ll be back in aminute.
    • She doesn’t live here anymore.
    • Dad wants to change hiscar.
    • Here is the weather forecast.
    • Cloudy weather is expected at the end of the week.
    • We should work together more often
    • I'm going for a walk in the park.
  • Commands
    • Write your name here.
    • Show me what you’ve written.
    • Leave it on thedesk.
    • Take that picture down.
    • Throw that out.
    • Put your books on the table.
    • Take your hands out of your pockets.
  • Wh- questions (requesting information.)
    (questions beginning with 'who', 'what', 'why', 'where', 'when', 'which', and 'how')
    • What country do you comefrom?
    • Where do youwork?
    • Which of them do you prefer?
    • When does the shop open?
    • How many books have you bought?
    • Which coat is yours?
    • Whose bag is this?
  • Questions Tags that are statements requesting confirmation rather than questions.
    Not all tag questions are really questions.
    Some of them merely ask for confirmation or invite agreement, in which case we use a falling tone at the end.
    • He thinks he’s so clever, doesn’t he?
    • She's such a nuisance, isn'tshe?
    • He failed the test because he didn't revise, did he?
    • It doesn't seem to bother him much, does it?
  • Exclamations
    • How nice of you!
    • That's just what I need!
    • You don't say!
    • What a beautiful voice!
    • That's a surprise!

Rising Intonation
(The pitch of the voice rises at the end of a sentence.)
Rising intonation invites the speaker to continue talking.
It is normally used with yes/no questions, and question tags that are real questions.

  • Yes/no Questions
    (Questions that can be answered by 'yes' or 'no'.)
    • Do you like your new teacher?
    • Have you finished already?
    • May I borrow your dictionary?
    • Do you have any magazines?
    • Do you sell stamps?
  • Questions tags that show uncertainty and require an answer (real questions).
    • We've met already, haven't we?
    • You like fish, don't you?
    • You're a new student aren't you?
    • The view is beautiful, isn't it?

We sometimes use a combination of rising and falling intonation in the same sentence.
The combination is called Rise-Fall or Fall-Rise intonation.

Rise-Fall Intonation (➚➘)
(The intonation rises and then falls.)
We use rise-fall intonation for choices, lists, unfinished thoughts and conditional sentences.

  • Choices (alternative questions.)
    • Are you having soup or salad?
    • Is John leaving on Thursday or Friday?
    • Does he speak German or French?
    • Is your name Ava or Eva?
  • Lists (rising, rising, rising, falling)
    Intonation falls on the last item to show that the list is finished.
    • We've got apples, pears, bananas and oranges
    • The sweater comes in blue, white, pink and black
    • I like football, tennis, basketball and volleyball.
    • I bought a tee-shirt, a skirt and a handbag.
  • Unfinished thoughts (partial statements)
    In the responses to the following questions, the rise-fall intonation indicates reservation.
    The speaker hesitates to fully express his/her thoughts.
    • Do you like my new handbag? Well the leather is nice... ( but I don't like it.)
    • What was the meal like? Hmm, the fish was good... (but the rest wasn't great).
    • So you both live in Los Angeles? Well Alex does ... (but I don't).
  • Conditional sentences
    (The tone rises in the first clause and falls gradually in the second clause.)
    • If he calls, ask him to leave a message.
    • Unless he insists, I'm not going to go.
    • If you have any problems, just contact us.

Fall-Rise Intonation (➘➚)
(The voice falls and rises usually within one word.)
The main function of fall-rise intonation is to show that the speaker is not certain of the answer they are giving to a question, or is reluctant to reply (as opposed to a falling tone used when there is no hesitation). It is also used in polite requests or suggestions.

  • Hesitation/reluctance:
    • So you'd be willing to confirm that? ...Well ... I suppose so ...
    • You didn't see him on Monday?   I don't quite remember ...
  • Politeness-Doubt-Uncertainty: (You are not sure what the answer might be.)
    • Perhaps we could visit the place?
    • Should we copy the list?
    • Do you think it's allowed?

Tips for learners:

A good exercise to improve pronunciation would be to listen to short recordings of everyday dialogues and then 'shadow read' the script, or read it along with the tape using the same stress and intonation as the speaker. Students can repeat this exercise until their voice sounds similar to the voice on the recording.

It is also a good idea to note down or record some examples of everyday conversations (either from real life or from film or television dialogues) and repeat them as often as possible, copying the stress and intonation of the speakers.

Modern English songs are also a useful way of learning English stress, rhythm and intonation.
To begin with, try singing (or saying loudly) the lyrics of songs that you find easy to understand.

You will be surprised how quickly your pronunciation will improve with the help of audio materials.
It will be a reward for all your hard work!


stress in words and sentences 

stress in nouns and verbs 

silent letters in English 

grammar back to homepage