Understand Stress and Tone: How to Ask “What was that?” With Different Intonation Patterns

Let’s look at how stress and tone work together to create recognizable intonation patterns. We’ll examine the question “What was that?”

This brief question can be used to politely ask someone to repeat themselves, show shock and surprise, and respond defensively to a rude comment.

All with three short words!

What was that?

Listen to how you can shift the stress within the question in order to express different emotions or attitudes.

This is why we always say “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

As you’ll discover, it might not be your words that were misunderstood, it might be your tone.

I encourage you to use this simple question to practice stressing each word for effect.

“What was that?” challenges you to really think about what your meaning is and use stress and emphasis to make it extra clear to your listener.

As you’ll learn, you can change your stress and choose a different intonation pattern to show a variety of emotions, including checking and confirming, surprise, astonishment, and defensiveness

(Watch the video once, and then go back, repeat the video, and pause to practice as many times as necessary. I summarize the intonation patterns below, but you need to hear them to get the full effect!)

Remember, you may need to replace the default intonation you’ve developed over time.

With practice, the different patterns will become more familiar to you, and you’ll notice that you sound more expressive.

You can also apply these intonation patterns to similar questions like, “What did you say?”

This is the third lesson from the 30 Days of Intonation program, designed to help you improve how you use word stress, tone, pitch, and intonation patterns in English. Learn more about 30 Days of Intonation.

Use Normal Question Intonation with “What Was That?” to Ask for Clarification

This simple question can be used in order to ask somebody to repeat themselves. (In fact, it’s a little more polite than “What?”)

When you ask the question, “What was that?” you start low and raise your pitch higher in order to show questioning intonation at the end.

This type of question intonation shows that you’re not sure what the other person said.

When you start your tone lower and then raise your voice to end the question on a higher pitch, you indicate that you need someone to repeat themselves.

Show Shock or Surprise With Word Stress and Tone

You can also use this question in order to show surprise when you see something that is a little shocking or that quickly went past you. In this case, you’ll ask “What WAS that?”

You show surprise by stressing the word “was,” which wouldn’t normally be stressed in the sentence.

You’re going to say, “What WAS that?” in order to show the person that what you saw or experienced was such a shock or surprise.

Demonstrate Annoyance or Defensiveness By Stressing the Question Differently

If you heard someone say something to you that sounded like it could have been a little bit rude, and you want them to repeat themselves, you will stress the question differently.

In this situation, you’re going to show annoyance or even defensiveness by stressing the question word “what” at the beginning of the sentence: WHAT was that?

Instead of using normal question intonation, you’re bringing extra stress to the word “what” in order to show the person that you heard a comment that sounded rude.

WHAT was that?

As you notice, you still raise your voice at the end in order to ask the question, but your extra emphasis on “what” shows that reaction to what you heard.

Show Astonishment By Stressing Each Word in the Question

If you want to demonstrate even more shock and surprise by expressing wonder and astonishment, you’re going to stress each word individually: What. was. that?

By lengthening and stressing each word and pausing noticeably between them, you suggest that what you saw, heard, or experiences was so shocking that you’re having trouble believing it!

Show Contrast By Stressing One Word More Than Usual

Last but not least, if you want to emphasize one thing instead of another thing, you’re going to stress the word “that” even more than usual: What was THAT?

If you’re comparing between two options, you may first ask “What was this one?” and then contrast your second option by asking the question “what was THAT?” and adding extra stress and emphasis to the final word.

Your Turn

Now that you’ve learned how you can stress this question differently in order to change its meaning, be sure to repeat these examples again and again. Mastering these intonation patterns takes practice.

Listen to the video a few times and copy the differences in stress and tone I demonstrate with my voice.

You’ll soon be able to express different feelings with this short and simple question.

If you like this lesson, there are 29 more inside the 30 Days of Intonation program. Over the course of a month, you’ll learn a variety of intonation patterns on useful words, phrases, and expressions so that you can feel more confident about the way you’re communicating your meaning in English.

New to stress and intonation? Get started with my free five-day Intonation Challenge.

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