The Melody of Spoken English: Intonation
Do you ever hear people say that English has a melody? It’s
true. Many people think that spoken English has a musical
quality. That’s probably because we use many intonation
patterns when we speak.
What do I mean by intonation patterns?
Well, intonation refers to the pitch
patterns we Americans use when we talk. There are
many intonation patterns in American English. These patterns
are important because they convey meaning.
While some tonal languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese and
Vietnamese use changes in pitch to differentiate between words,
English uses pitch or intonation patterns over phrases and
sentences to convey larger chunks of meaning.
The two most commonly used sentence intonation patterns used
in spoken English are: rising-falling intonation and rising
First I’ll tell you about rising-falling intonation. In
rising-falling intonation the speaker’s pitch rises and
falls on the focus word in a sentence (you learned
about focus words in last week’s lesson). The final falling
pitch indicates that the speaker is finished talking.
In rising intonation the speaker’s pitch rises and stays
HIGH at the end of a sentence. The rising pitch at the
end of a sentence indicates that the speaker is waiting for a
Here are some examples. Sentence A below has rising-falling
intonation and Sentence B has rising intonation.
A. She wants
to buy some SOda.
B. Do you think that’s a good deCISion?
Click play below to listen to each sentence.
Mini Lesson: Listening
for Intonation Patterns
Rising-falling intonation is the most common
intonation pattern in English. The speaker’s pitch rises at
the top of the focus word and then drops to indicate the
speaker is finished speaking.
Rising-falling intonation is found in:
- declarative sentences
- commands (very strong)
- ‘wh’ questions
In rising intonation the pitch rises and stays
high at the end of the sentence. When you hear rising
intonation it indicates that they speaker is waiting for a
reply. Rising intonation is found in:
o yes/no questions
o situations when someone is expressing doubt or
Listen and repeat each sentence. Then decide if
the sentence has rising-falling or rising intonation. (The
answers are below.)
1. When is John coming over?
2. Is he coming over this afternoon?
3. No, he’s coming over this evening.
4. Is he bringing a pizza?
5. No, he’s bringing Chinese
Click the play button to listen:
(1. RF, 2. R, 3. RF, 4. R, 5.
Insight: American English
An idiom is a unique expression in which the meaning cannot
necessarily be understood from the literal definitions of the
I’ve chosen two of my favorite food idioms to share with
The first idiom is: a bad apple
In American English a bad apple is a rotten person who
spreads their bad temperament or habits to others around him or
her. As you can imagine, if someone calls you a bad apple it is
NOT a complement!
For example: If my brother has been hanging out with a mean
kid at school my father might say, “Peter, you should stay away
from Jimmy, he’s a bad apple”.
The second idiom is:
a bun in the
What do you think this idiom means? Hint: it has nothing to
do with bread but it has a lot to do with being a woman…. Did
you guess? Well, when a woman has a ‘bun in the oven’ it means
For example: If my sister is pregnant, I might say, “Did you
hear the good news about Katy, she’s got a bun in the
Click below to listen and say these sentences
1. Stay away from that boy; he’s a bad apple!
2. Did you hear the news; Lisa has a bun in the
Featured Learning Resource:
fonetiks.org American English Tones
This page has 13
short audio examples of different intonation
patterns. Move your mouse over the symbols
to listen. The tones are authentic but the
website does not explain when to apply each
Click on the image to go to the site