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Intonation in English – Video

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In this lesson, you can learn about intonation in English. How important is intonation? Let’s see. Look at a sentence: Do you need some help?

By changing the intonation of this question, you can sound polite, annoyed, sarcastic, surprised, or many other things.

You can see that intonation is a very powerful tool. Controlling your intonation is important for communication in spoken English.

So, let’s start at the very beginning: what actually is intonation?

QUIZ: Intonation in English

Now test your understanding of intonation and your ability to identify it, by trying this quiz.

There are 20 questions, which follow the order of the lesson. You must answer them in order and cannot go back. Some answers may help you with later questions.

You can click ‘Hint’ in some places to check which part of the lesson you can refer back to if needed. Click ‘View Questions’ at the end to see all the correct answers.

1. Different Patterns of Intonation

Intonation in English - rising and falling arrow

There are seven possible intonation patterns in English:

  1. rising
  2. falling
  3. rising-falling
  4. falling-rising
  5. flat
  6. high
  7. low

The most important are the first four: rising, falling, and combinations of rising and falling tones.

Flat tones, including high and low tones, aren’t common and don’t have many uses, so we won’t talk about them today.

However, rising and falling tones can each have many different meanings. Keep this in mind: one intonation pattern does not mean one thing. The same intonation can have different meanings in different situations.

Also, intonation is flexible. There are rules, but the rules are not one hundred per cent fixed. Different people speak in different styles.

Let’s practice! Here’s a word: where?

Let’s try saying the word with different intonation patterns. Repeat after me.

Rising: where?

Falling: where?

Rising-falling: where?

Falling-rising: where?

Let’s try one more time, with two words: how many?

Rising: how many?

Falling: how many?

Rising-falling: how many?

Falling-rising: how many?

If you can pronounce these four intonation patterns, you can already do most of what you need in English.

So, how do you use these intonation patterns?

The most basic rule is that you use a falling tone to show the end of a sentence. For example:

  • I live in Madrid.
  • She’s a lawyer.
  • We might be a bit late.

You can use a rising tone to show that your sentence isn’t finished yet. For example:

  • I live in Madrid, but I was born in Canada.
  • She’s a lawyer, although she isn’t working at the moment.
  • We might be a bit late, because I don’t finish work until seven.

That’s the most basic rule, and it’s important. If you don’t use rising or falling tones in the right places, people won’t understand whether you’ve finished speaking or not.

However, there are many other ways to use these intonation patterns. Let’s look at another.

2. New Information Vs Old Information

[^ = rising tone & = falling tone]

Daniel: Did you get some bread?

Kae: I thought &you& were going to get the ^bread^!

D: How are we going to make &sandwiches& if we don’t have any ^bread^?

K: We can go to the &bakery& and buy some ^sandwiches^ there.

D: But, I think the ^bakery^ is closed on &Saturdays&.

K:It’s not ^Saturday^ today; it’s &Sunday&!

D: Oh…

Intonation in English - sandwich photo

Can you work out what was going on in that dialogue?

After the first question: did you get some bread, you heard five sentences. Listen again if you need to; can you hear the intonation?

Before, you heard that you use falling intonation at the end of your sentence, but here, the pattern is often the opposite:

  • I thought &you& were going to get the ^bread^!

Do you know why this is?

This is our second rule about intonation: you use a falling tone to show that information is new, and you use a rising tone for old information.

In this sentence, the bread has already been mentioned, so it’s ‘old’ information, and you pronounce it with a rising tone.

However, the word you gets a falling tone, because this is the new idea in the sentence.

Let’s look at the next example:

  • How are we going to make &sandwiches& if we don’t’ have any ^bread^?

Here, the idea is the same. The bread is ‘old’ information, so you pronounce it with a rising tone. The sandwiches are new information; this is the first time anyone has talked about sandwiches. New information gets a falling tone.

In the next sentence, which word is ‘old’ information, and which word is ‘new’ information?

  • We can go to the bakery and buy some sandwiches there.

Sandwiches are ‘old’ information, because we already mentioned them. So, pronounce sandwiches with a rising tone.

The bakery is ‘new’ information, because this is the first time anyone has mentioned it. So, bakery has a falling tone.

In the last two sentences, the pattern is reversed, but the idea is the same:

  • But, I think the ^bakery^ is closed on &Saturdays&.
  • It’s not ^Saturday^ today; it’s &Sunday&!

In the first sentence, the bakery is now ‘old’ information, so it gets a rising tone. The ‘new’ information, with a falling tone, comes at the end of the sentence.

You can see the same pattern in the second sentence: the ‘old’ information—Saturday—comes first, and the ‘new’ information—Sunday—is at the end of the sentence.

If you want more practice with this, go back to the dialogue.

Pause after each sentence, and repeat, trying to copy the intonation. Pay attention to the way intonation changes on the same word as it changes from new to old information.

Next, let’s look at a very important use of intonation: questions.

3. Intonation in Questions

[^ = rising tone & = falling tone]

D: &Where did you go for your vacation?&

K: I went to Dubrovnik.

D: ^Is that in Croatia?^

K: Yes, on the coast. &Have you ever been?&

D: No, never. &Did you have a good time?&

K: Very nice, though it’s quite touristy.

D: ^You got back yesterday, right?^

K: Yeah, late in the evening.

D: ^Are you feeling tired?^

K: No, not too bad, actually!

In the dialogue, you heard six questions. Three of them had rising tones, and three had falling tones.

Do you know why the intonation is different in different questions?

Sometimes, when you’re asking a question, you have no idea of the answer. You’re asking a question to find out new information.

In this case, the question has a falling tone:

  • &Where did you go for your vacation?&
  • &Have you ever been?&
  • &Did you have a good time?&

Sometimes, when you ask a question, you already have some idea of the answer. You’re asking a question to check something, or to confirm that your idea is right.

In this case, the question has a rising tone:

  • ^Is that in Croatia?^ –> I think Dubrovnik is in Croatia, but I’m asking to make sure.
  • ^You got back yesterday, right?^ –> I had an idea that you got back yesterday, and I’m confirming this with you.
  • ^Are you feeling tired?^ –> You told me you got back late in the evening, so I guess you’re tired.

This means that the intonation of a question can change depending on the situation.

For example, you can ask:

  • &Is that in Croatia?&

If you use falling tones, this becomes a question to find new information. This means you really have no idea whether Dubrovnik is in Croatia or not, and you want to know.

You can ask:

  • ^Where did you go for your vacation?^

If you ask this with a rising tone, it could suggest that you knew the answer before, and you just want a reminder. You’re checking something you already knew; you’re not asking for completely new information.

Using this intonation will help you to sound more natural, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the question. However, there are many other intonation patterns in questions which do have different meanings. Let’s look!

4. Intonation in Other Kinds of Questions

[^ = rising; & = falling]

D: What a fantastic film! &Wasn’t it great?&

K: ^Are you insane?^ It was the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

D: &Why would you say that?& It was amazing!

K: Forget it. It’s two hours of my life I’m never getting back.

D: &Why don’t we get something to eat?& Your pick.

K: &How about we just go home?& I’m pretty tired.

Again, you heard many questions in the dialogue. Can you see what was different this time?

Before we tell you, think about a question: what does a question do?

Most likely, you thought: “a question asks for information.” That’s sometimes true, but actually you can use questions to communicate many other ideas.

In these cases, a question might not need an answer.

For example, you can use questions to make a comment about something: &Wasn’t it great?&

You can use questions to criticise someone or disagree with them: ^Are you insane?^

You can use questions to make suggestions: &Why don’t we get something to eat?&

Can you remember the intonation in these questions?

To make a comment about something, use a falling tone:

  • &Why would you say that?&
  • &Doesn’t he look smart?&
  • &Isn’t it delicious?&

To criticise someone, use a rising tone:

  • ^Have you lost your mind?^
  • ^Why would you do that?^
  • ^Are you really that stupid?^

To make a suggestion, use a falling tone:

  • &How about we just go home?&
  • &Why don’t you call and ask what’s happening?&

Remember that intonation is flexible, and that’s especially true here. You can also make a suggestion with a rising tone:

  • ^How about we just go home?^

Can you hear the difference? How do you think it changes the meaning?

The suggestion with a rising tone sounds more like a real question, because it sounds more indirect and hesitant. The suggestion with a falling tone doesn’t sound so much like a question; it sounds more confident and direct.

This brings us to our last point: you can use intonation to express many different emotions.

5. Using Intonation to Express Emotions

Intonation in English - emotions imageThere’s one intonation pattern we haven’t talked about yet: rising-falling intonation.

You can use this to express different feelings: positive or negative.

Look at one word: really?

You can use a rising-falling tone to sound excited: really?

You can use it—slightly differently—to sound annoyed: really?

You can use it to sound surprised: really?

Can you hear the difference between these three? Listen once more:

Really? [excited]

Really? [annoyed]

Really? [surprised]

You use a rising-falling tone each time, but in a slightly different way.

To sound excited or surprised, you start and finish higher, but to sound annoyed, the tones are lower: really? [excited] really? [annoyed]

To sound surprised, you often make the rising tone longer: really?

You can also use other tones to express some emotions.

For example, you can use a rising tone to express doubt: really?

You can use a falling tone to sound sarcastic: really?

Let’s practice! You’ll hear the same question with five different kinds of intonation. Which emotion am I expressing: surprise, doubt, excitement, sarcasm, or annoyance?

Did you? [annoyed/rise-fall]

Did you? [surprised/rise-fall]

Did you? [sarcastic/falling]

Did you? [excited/rise-fall]

Did you? [doubtful/rising]

Now it’s your turn! Repeat after me, and copy the intonation:

Did you? [annoyed/rise-fall]

Did you? [surprised/rise-fall]

Did you? [sarcastic/falling]

Did you? [excited/rise-fall]

Did you? [doubtful/rising]

Okay, we hope you learned something useful about English intonation.

We have a question for you: is intonation in your language similar to English, or not? Let us know in the YouTube comments, because we’re curious!

Want more practice with your your English sounds? Watch another free lesson from Oxford Online English on syllables and word stress.

Thanks for watching!

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