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Concourse 2



intonation If the area of intonation is new to you and the terms pitch, stress and tone unit are unfamiliar, you are advised to look at the guide to key concepts in intonation first.

You should also have worked through the guide to consonants, the guide to connected speech and the guide to vowels before tackling this.

Intonation is a complex area so this guide will only cover the most important aspects.  At the end of the guide there is a list of suggestions for further reading.


What is intonation?

A simple definition is that it refers to variations in spoken pitch or tone and stress or emphasis.
Intonation is often used to show the attitude of the speaker and signal such things as:

  1. The difference between statements and questions.  Some languages use only intonation to do this, having no grammatical difference between an affirmative and an interrogative sentence.
  2. The difference between various types of question such as those expecting a yes/no answer (closed questions) and those requiring elaboration such as questions beginning with why, who, what etc.
  3. The speaker's focus of attention on various bits of the message.

For example, if somebody asks you a simple yes/no question such as, "Are you coming to the party?", how many ways can you vary the intonation on a simple 'yes' answer?  Look at the graphic above for some clues and try to express the following attitudes:

  1. No emotional response
  2. Positive confirmation
  3. Why do you ask?
  4. Of course!  I'm astonished you should ask!
  5. I'm not sure if I'm coming or not.  It depends.
  6. Carry on and tell me why you are asking.

Click here when you have done that.

Now try this short test doing the same with the word 'Hello' to see if you can match intonation pattern to speaker attitude.  Imagine you are answering the door or a telephone call.

If you got that mostly right, we can move on.  If you didn't, refresh this page and have another look.


Why is intonation important?

Although this is undeniably a challenging area to teach, it is important for the simple reason that native speakers are accustomed to hearing English which contains errors in structure and the pronunciation of individual sounds (especially vowels) but may be wholly unaware that errors in intonation are even possible.  Wells puts it this way:

After all, almost any intonation pattern is possible in English; but different intonation patterns have different meanings.  The difficulty is that the pattern the learner uses may not have the meaning he or she intends.  Speakers of English assume that – when it comes to intonation – you mean what you say.  This may not be the same as what you think you are saying.
(Wells, 2006: 2)


Prosodic features

There are two key ideas here:

  1. Pitch or tone
    This refers to the 'note' of the voice being high, low or somewhere in the middle.  English uses tone as a component of intonation but other languages, called tonal languages, such as Mandarin or Thai, use tone to vary the meanings of words.  The classic example is the Mandarin word ma.  Spoken with a high tone, the word means mother, with a rising tone it means hemp, with a low fall-rise tone it means horse, and with a falling tone it means to scold.
  2. Stress
    This is a combination of loudness, duration and pitch or tone.  Some languages make great use of stress to distinguish lexically.  For example, the Greek word πότε (with the stress on the first syllable [potay]) means when but the word ποτέ (with the stress on the second syllable [potay]) means never.  English rarely does this but there is a distinction between, for example, envelope and envelope.
    Usually, four types of stress in English are identified:
    1. Tonic stress: in any unit of intonation, the stress will always fall on a particular syllable but it will vary, usually falling towards the end of the unit, so we get:
      He's talking.
      He's talking to my
      He's talking to my brother about
      The original stresses don't disappear in the first two sentences but become less stressed comparatively.
    2. Emphatic stress occurs when the speaker wants to assign particular emphasis to a word or concept.  Often this focuses on a modal auxiliary verb or some kind of adverbial.  For example, compare:
      It was really hot vs. It was really hot
      He told me I must do it
      vs. He told me I must do it
    3. Contrastive stress is what we hear when the speaker wants to distinguish one concept from another.  So we get, e.g., They arrived together (not left together) vs. They arrived together (not separately).
    4. New information stress often occurs in questions, especially wh- questions, so we get a dialogue something like:
      Where did you go?
      I went to the cinema.
      What did you see?
      I saw that soppy love story.

      and so on.  Each question and each answer focuses the stress on the new information.


Transcribing intonation

There are two ways generally in use:

  1. Using arrows such as ↑↓→ to show when the intonation changes.
  2. Using contour lines such as contour to show the range across an utterance.

Additionally, the use of bold type or underlining, or both, as above, is common practice.  All these methods are used in this guide.


The functions of intonation

The following is drawn from a key text by Wells,2006.  Wells has six essential functions.  The examples are not from Wells.

attitudinal function
This is the kind of thing we started with.  For example, if you say Good afternoon with a flat intonation, falling slightly at the end, you will probably sound like you are starting a serious business meeting and are keen to get on to the agenda.  It requires no response.
If you say it with a rise-fall intonation, falling on noon, after rising on after, you will sound more positive and welcoming.
It looks like this:
good afternoon
grammatical function
We can make a question in English only by changing the intonation pattern.  So we can have:
A number of languages (such as Greek) rely solely on intonation to make a question in spoken language.
Many would also claim that a question requiring a yes/no answer will have rising intonation along the sentence.  So, for example
    Are you coming to the meeting?
will rise on the word meeting to indicate that the speaker needs a yes/no response.
However, on a wh- question requiring more information from the listener, such as
    What time's the meeting?
the intonation falls on the final word.  The effect is something like:
question intonation
This occurs when the speaker wants to signal what is new and what is shared information.  For example, if we put a falling tone on the word pen in
    There's a ↓pen on the table
we are answering the question
    What's on the table?
but if we let the tone fall on table as in
    There's a pen on the ↓table
we are answering the question
    Have you got something to write with?
(or something similar).
It might look like this:
pen table
This is a form of markedness in some analyses and there is a guide to markedness on this site.
discourse function
We use intonation to show how ideas are connected.  Subordinate clauses, for example, have lower pitch and are spoken more quickly than the main clause.  So we can get:
Another example, often asserted, is that intonation allows the hearer to distinguish between defining and non-defining pronoun relative clauses.  So we get:
relative clauses
signalling the commas in the second example by dropping the tone and speaking more quickly.  See the guide to relative pronoun clauses if this distinction is unclear to you.
psychological function
This refers to how we perceive sense units in utterances.  In lists, for example, we use something like
    I bought some ↑butter, some ↑jam, a loaf of ↑bread and a pint of ↓milk.
Here's another example of how pausing and the accompanying intonation is affected by the speaker's perception of sense units.  Compare:
  1. The people who under↓stood [PAUSE] quickly grasped the argument.
  2. The people who understood ↓quickly [PAUSE] grasped the argument.
In sentence 1., we know some people understood but the adverb quickly applies to the grasping of the point, not the understanding (which may have been slow).
In sentence 2., we know that people understood, too, but only the ones who quickly understood grasped the point.
The issue is to do with phrase constituents, to which there is a guide on this site.  In sentence 1., we have the verb phrase understood quickly and in sentence 2., the verb phrase is quickly grasped.
Of course, the second sentence can be disambiguated in writing and speech by moving the adverb so we can have:
  1. The people who quickly understood grasped the argument.
  2. The people who understood grasped the argument quickly.
indexical function
This refers to intonation acting as a marker of personal or social identity.  For example, newspaper sellers use a particular intonation pattern, as do newsreaders and people delivering lectures or sermons.  It has also been argued that the high-rise terminal, where all statements sound like questions with a rise at the end, is typical of certain social and age groups in Britain.  It has even been suggested that the tendency is caused by exposure to Australian television soap operas in which the pattern is common.


Do note imagine, however, that our reactions and attitudes are signalled only by the intonation we use.  Far from it.  If you or your materials imply anything of the sort, your students will be seriously misled.
This is what was said in the guide to key features of intonation and it bears repeating her.:

There are no arguments for teaching intonation in terms of attitude, because the rules for use are too obscure, too amorphous, and too easily refutable.
(Brazil, Coulthard & Johns, 1980:120)

Intonation does play a communicative role, of course, but in conjunction with the setting, the roles of speaker and listener, their intentions and their shared information in the setting.

A note on punctuation

The written form of intonation is punctuation although the resources available are much more limited.  Marks such as '!', '?' and even '??!!' as well as the use of dashes, commas, italics, bold type, UPPER-CASE LETTERS and full stops are all devices which can be used to represent spoken intonation.  They don't only do that, of course, as they are also involved in reducing ambiguity and making text coherent as well as cohesive.

Of course there's a test.

Go to the index for the pronunciation section of the in-service guides

You may find some of the following helpful in this rather technical area.
Brazil, D, 1975, Discourse Intonation, Birmingham: University of Birmingham: English Language Research
Brazil, D, Coulthard, RM and Johns, C, 1980, Discourse Intonation and Language Teaching, Harlow: Longman
Celce-Murcia, M, Brinton D and Goodwin J, 1996, Teaching Pronunciation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Crystal, D, 1969, Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wells, JC, 2006, English Intonation: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press