Intonation in English: When to Change It and How to Learn It
This music of languages is called intonation, and it’s something you probably don’t even think about when speaking your native language.
Intonation is the rise and fall of your voice when you speak. Many times, it’s just as important as your words in expressing what you want to say.
That’s why when you’re learning English, you shouldn’t just learn what to say, you should also learn how to say it.
So to help, I’m going to show you seven situations where intonation matters in English, with examples of each type.
- How Intonation Changes Meaning
- The Main English Intonation Patterns
- Tips on Practicing English Intonation
- 7 Cases Where Intonation Matters in English
- And One More Thing...
How Intonation Changes Meaning
Using the right intonation can actually change the meaning of your words. Think of your voice as a musical instrument. As you speak, your voice gets louder and softer, places emphasis on certain parts, and goes up and down the notes. The notes of your voice are called its pitch, and the change in pitch is what we call intonation.
For example, say this sentence out loud:
“How you doin’?”
This looks like a simple, very informal way to ask someone how they’re doing. It’s not grammatically correct (it should say “How are you doing?” ), but it’s easy to understand.
When you said it out loud, you probably started on a low note and rose up to a higher note on the “doin’.”
Now listen to Joey from the TV show “Friends” say it in this video. He stresses the word “you” instead, which gives the phrase a completely different meaning. His version of this simple greeting is suggestive (hinting at something sexual) and a bit flirtatious (he’s flirting). (Of course, his facial expression doesn’t help!).
And it doesn’t stop there! Something as simple as the word “really” can have many different meanings depending on your pitch. A rising pitch shows surprise, a falling pitch shows disbelief. Not changing your pitch at all can sound sarcastic (when you say one thing but mean the opposite).
So imagine that your friend just told you he won the lottery. How you say the word “really” will influence how he thinks you feel about this (and might influence whether he shares his prize money!).
It can also explain why sometimes people don’t seem to understand you even when you use the right words and grammar.
Learning intonation is a crucial part of becoming an advanced English learner.
The Main English Intonation Patterns
There are two main American English intonation patterns:
- Falling: This is when your voice lowers its pitch at the end of the sentence, and it’s the most common pattern in American English. Use this for most regular statements and questions that are not yes or no questions. Hear it here.
- Rising: This is when your voice raises its pitch at the end of the sentence. Use this when you’re asking a yes or no question or to show disbelief or anger. Hear it here.
This is a simplified explanation, and there are a number of other different ways you can change your pitch to change your meaning. But if you can learn these two main patterns well, the rest will follow! You’ll find out more about them in a bit, but first it’s important to learn how to study intonation.
Tips on Practicing English Intonation
To improve your intonation, you will first need to become aware of it. So before you do anything, record yourself speaking English. Choose a paragraph that has different kinds of sentences, like the first few sentences in a book you’re reading (here’s one you can see online, just click on “Read sample” on the left to “look inside”).
Now that you have a recording of yourself speaking, you can listen to it and hear what needs work. Does your voice sound flat? Does it rise and fall in a way that sounds natural? Do you “sound” like a native speaker?
Here are a few tips that will help you get the right sound in your English speech:
- Shadow read with a video. Shadow reading is when you read along with a video or audio clip. Find a video with subtitles on YouTube or choose any of the videos on FluentU.
- Mark up your text. Make markings on the text that show where your pitch should rise and fall. You can draw arrows above the words or use lines—whatever works for you.
- Exaggerate. Practice your intonation by exaggerating it, which means making it much bigger than it should be. For example, when your pitch is supposed to go up, go really high! You won’t speak like this in a conversation, but it’s a good way to become more aware of intonation when you speak.
- Use a pitch detector. A pitch detector like the one on Online Mic Test is usually used for tuning musical instruments. However, since your voice is an instrument, this is a good chance to see your voice’s ups and downs (and maybe check how in-tune your singing is).
- Try different intonations. Choose one sentence and say it in many different ways. Raise and lower your pitch, put stress on different words, and just play around with it. Try recording yourself and then listen to how you sound. What makes you sound angry? Surprised? You can learn a lot from just trying different things.
Using these tips should make you more aware of how you’re speaking. But when do you use which type of intonation? We’re glad you asked!
7 Cases Where Intonation Matters in English
Remember that there are other ways to use your voice and pitch to change the meaning of your words. For example, the rhythm and speed of your voice, or where you place the stress in the sentence can also change the meaning. The situations below should give you a good place to start, but always be listening for other ways you can improve the way you speak English!
1. Asking questions
For yes or no questions, use a rising intonation at the end of the sentence.
“Are you going to school tomorrow?”
For most other types of questions, use a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.
“Why are you going to school tomorrow? It’s Saturday!”
Hear it: In this funny clip from the TV show “Friends,” you can hear the intonation of “got the keys” debated by the characters. Monica uses rising intonation to prove it was said as the question “Got the keys?” while Rachel argues that it was said as a statement. You can see another example of rising intonation at the end when Chandler says “Do either of you have the keys?”
2. Making statements
Most regular statements (those which just state facts or information; not statements which clarify or emphasize anything) use a falling intonation at the end of the sentence.
“I’ve been playing the violin for seven years.”
Hear it: In this clip from “America’s Got Talent,” the young comedian Leo answers questions from the judges with this intonation. When he says how old he is and what he does, his answers are statements, and you can hear his voice lower in pitch on the last word.
3. Listing things
Items on a list use a rising intonation until the final item, which uses a falling intonation.
“I love chocolate, strawberry and pistachio ice cream.”
Hear it: In the first three sentences of this section of the video, the teacher provides different examples of intonation in lists. Listen to the speaker’s intonation rise and fall in the phrase “I like birds, cats and dogs.” In the next examples, the speaker shows rising and falling intonation in questions. Note how the speaker’s intonation rises until “chicken” in the example: “Did you eat beef, pork or chicken?”
4. Expressing feelings
High-energy emotions like happiness, excitement, fright and annoyance usually use a rising intonation. The example below, for example, can be joy, excitement or annoyance depending on the situation.
“I can’t believe he gave you a ride home!”
Boredom, sarcasm and disinterest often use a falling intonation. For example, the sentence below would sound very sarcastic if you said it in a low pitch. With the sarcastic tone, it would mean that the speaker actually isn’t excited at all.
“I am so excited for you.”
Hear it: The Disney Pixar movie “Inside Out” is all about expressing feelings and emotions, and this clip is a great example of how your voice conveys your emotions. Eleven seconds into the clip, Disgust says, “Hold on, what is that?” with a falling intonation on “that.” This shows disgust, since it’s not a yes or no question, so it shouldn’t rise in pitch. Later on, at around 00:37, Anger starts talking and his voice rises about halfway through his sentences to show how angry he is.
5. Stressing the importance of something
Use rising intonation on specific words in a sentence to emphasize their importance. The first example below emphasizes the “red” and implies (suggests) there were choices in color. The second emphasizes the “scarf” and implies there were choices in items.
“I hope you got the red scarf.”
“I hope you got the red scarf.”
Hear it: Try listening to how intonation is used in this clip. In the phrase, “I took two years of Japanese in college,” the emphasis is placed on the word “Japanese.” The first example response to this is “I thought you studied Russian in college,” with the emphasis placed on “Russian.” Here, rising intonation is used to emphasize the importance of something as well as to clarify the information given (e.g., Japanese or Russian).
6. Contrasting between things
Use a rising intonation and place stress on the two things you want to contrast.
“I thought he liked dogs but he actually likes cats.”
You can also use this intonation to point out things that seem one way, but are another way.
“You should exercise every day, but I know you don’t have the time.”
Hear it: This video explains how to compare and contrast. Start at 0:42, and notice how the speaker stresses the bold words in the following sentence: “When people talk about a book versus a movie made from the book, they are…” to place emphasis on the two things being compared.
7. Using tag questions
Use rising intonation on questions at the end of a sentence that require the clarification or opinion of your speaking partner. These are called tag questions.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
Hear it: This video highlights the tag questions in the conversation, so you can see and hear exactly how they work and what they sound like.
Remember, intonation can turn a happy comment into a sarcastic one, or turn a statement into a question. Pay attention to the way you speak and you’ll be understood a lot better!
And One More Thing...
If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:
The FluentU app and website makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition, and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part? FluentU remembers the vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or from the Google Play store.