If you’ve been hanging around here for even a little while, you’ve probably heard me talk about the importance of intonation in American English.
Intonation is like the music of English. It’s how our voices rise and fall in order to communicate certain meaning through our tone.
In this video, we’re going to talk about the most common type of intonation: falling intonation.
Falling intonation is most commonly used on normal, neutral statements and information questions.
Because falling intonation is so essential for clear communication in English, it’s important to master this particular intonation pattern.
What is Falling Intonation?
When we use the term “falling intonation,” we’re actually talking about a rise and then a fall on the most important content word of the sentence.
(In linguistics terms, this is often called rise-fall intonation.)
In normal, neutral sentences, the last content word of the sentence is the one that receives the most stress, and so we’re going to rise and then fall from that stressed syllable down to the end of the sentence.
Your pitch is going to rise to its highest point on this stressed syllable and then drop down at the end.
This drop at the end is why we often refer to this type of intonation as falling intonation.
Before we start practicing falling intonation, let’s talk about why it matters.
Why We Use Falling Intonation in American English
Why do we use falling intonation?
- We use falling intonation on normal, neutral sentences.
- We use falling intonation when we’re giving information or making observations.
- We use falling intonation when we’re asking information questions. (This distinguishes them from yes/no questions, which you can learn about about in Rising Intonation in American English.)
- We also use falling intonation when giving commands, instructions, or orders.
Information questions are sometimes called “wh-questions” because many of the question words begin with “wh.”
Information questions are the questions that begin with who, what, where, when, why, how, how long, how much, how many, and other variations on these question words.
Because we often use normal, neutral statements as well as information questions, falling intonation communicates clearly that we’re done with the statement or the question.
Falling intonation signals that we’re done with the thought!
Keep in mind that in order to use falling intonation correctly, you also need to have a contrast between stressed syllables and unstressed syllables throughout your sentence.
If your pitch sounds the same throughout your sentence, but then still you have a drop at the end, it can signal a different type of emotion. (We’ll talk about that in just a moment.)
As I mentioned, in order to create the correct intonation in American English, you need to make sure you’re also stressing your content words and reducing your function words.
If you need more review on how we create this natural rhythm and melody, be sure to check out Sentence Stress in American English.
Practice Falling Tone with Steep Drops or Glides Down
As we go through the examples, pay attention to the steep drop in pitch on that last content word, down to your baseline pitch.
Many non-native speakers struggle with falling intonation because this drop in pitch on the last content word can actually be very quick or very steep.
When we have one- or two-syllable words, the pitch needs to rise on the stressed syllable and then drop quickly at the end.
Native English speakers do this automatically, so we’re able to glide our pitch down on a one-syllable word.
If you’re not used to creating this falling tone, you’re going to need to practice it. Get started with these Pitch Exercises with Steps and Glides.
As you start practicing falling intonation, try to focus on factual sentences, or things that you can say because they are true.
This will make it easier to create the right intonation pattern when you’re using neutral, normal sentences in everyday speech.
Keep in mind that we sometimes shift the stress of the sentence in order to change the meaning.
(You can see what I mean in this video on How to Say “I don’t know” with the Right Tone.)
Practice Falling Intonation with Example Sentences
When you’re practicing falling intonation, you want to make sure you have that glide down from the stressed syllable of the most important content word, down to the end of the sentence.
When you get started, it’s much easier to practice with these normal, neutral sentences where the last content word is the one that receives the most stress in the sentence.
Let’s look at some examples.
I’m from Boston.
As you can hear in this example, I’m stressing the first syllable of the city, “bos,” and then I’m dropping down at the end: I’m from BOSton.
You can hear that there’s a drop in pitch from that stressed syllable down to the end of the sentence.
Let’s try another example.
Today is a sunny day.
As you can hear, I am rising and dropping in pitch on that last content word.
You can hear that I’m using that pitch glide down to the end in order to signal that I’m done with this statement: Today is a sunny DAY.
Can you hear the falling intonation at the end of the sentence?
Now let’s try a couple of longer sentences.
California is one of the biggest states in the US.
As you can hear, “US” is my last content word in this statement. I am rising to “S” and then dropping on that last syllable: California is one of the biggest states in the US.
That rise and drop on the “s” is signaling that I’m done with my statement.
Here’s another example.
When you have a moment, send me the latest report.
As you can hear, my pitch is rising to that last stressed syllable, “port,” and then dropping at the end: When you have a moment, send me the latest rePORT.
Can you hear that fall at the end of the sentence?
One more example with these neutral sentences.
In my country, we take education seriously.
As you can hear, my pitch is rising to the stressed syllable on the last content word, “seriously.”
The stressed syllable is “ser,” and then the pitch falls at the end: In my country, we take education SERiously.
As you can hear, falling intonation is more obvious on longer words, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important on the shorter words that you heard in many of the other examples.
As I often mention, we use a lot of short words in natural speech, so you want to make sure you’re able to create that pitch drop on short words just as well as you do on long words.
How are you doing with these examples?
As you probably noticed in the longer examples, you may hear some rises and falls mid-sentence in order to help with the cadence of the statement.
These changes in tone mid-sentence will vary based on a number of factors, but most importantly, it has to do with how the person is chunking their words or breaking their sentence into shorter phrases.
Practice Falling Intonation in Information Questions
Now, let’s move on to talking about how we use falling intonation in information questions. Let’s start with one of the most common questions in English.
Where are you from?
As you can hear, we’re having that rise and then the fall on the last content word of the sentence, “from.” Where are you FROM?
It’s important to understand that the fall at the end of a question signals to the other person that you’re waiting to hear their answer.
Let’s try another example.
How long have you been living here?
In this example, “living” is the most important content word because that’s the information I want.
As you can hear, you have a little more time to produce that fall at the end of the sentence: How long have you been LIVing here?
Whenever you have extra bonus words at the end of the sentence, but they’re not the most important words of the sentence, that will give you a little more time to create that fall at the end of the sentence.
Like I said at the beginning, the most important content word of the sentence might vary based on various factors such as what word you’re trying to emphasize, the information you’re trying to get from the other person, and what’s been happening in the rest of the sentence.
Depending on the context, you may stress a different word, but you will still have that fall to the end in order to signal that it’s an information question.
One more example.
Why do you think that?
As you can hear, I’m rising in pitch to the most important word, “think,” and then dropping down at the end: Why do you THINK that?
Just to remind you again, when you hear that fall at the end of an information question, it signals to the other person that you’re ready to hear their answer.
Without that drop, they may think you’re asking a different type of question, or that you don’t really need them to respond or take over in the conversation.
Practice Falling Intonation in Tag Questions
You’ll also hear falling intonation on tag questions. When you have falling intonation on tag questions, it signals that it’s just a statement of fact.
Like I said at the beginning, we use falling intonation when we’re making observations. So you may say something like the following:
The weather is beautiful, isn’t it?
I’m not expecting the other person to respond. We can both see that the weather is beautiful.
The fall at the end is just an interesting way to make an observation:
- The weather is beautiful today, ISN’T it?
- It’s a beautiful day, ISN’T it?
- This place is beautiful, ISN’T it?
- We’re having a great time, AREN’T we?
Why You Need to Be Careful with Falling Intonation
Now that you have a better understanding of falling intonation, I want to give you a little warning.
Even though falling intonation is the most common intonation pattern in English, you have to pay attention to how steep the drop is.
If you’re ending every statement with a very, very steep drop, it can signal that you are being demanding or commanding.
We use steeper, more extreme drops at the end of the sentence in order to signal an authoritative attitude.
Similarly, if you don’t have the contrast between stressed and unstressed or reduced words throughout your sentence, using only falling intonation in your statements can sound like you’re annoyed, disinterested, frustrated, or bored.
To get the best results with using falling intonation, you want to make sure you also practice sentence stress for English rhythm.
You want to make sure you’re creating this rise and fall in pitch throughout your sentence. This is really going to help you sound more like a native English speaker.
It’s absolutely essential to master intonation patterns to sound more natural in English, but you also need to pay attention to your stress because this plays an important role in intonation as well.
Be sure to check out my other videos on pitch and intonation patterns in American English:
Create Your Own Examples with Falling Intonation
Now that you’ve had the opportunity to practice falling intonation with my examples, it’s time for you to create your own.
Write three to five normal, neutral sentences. Try writing factual statements about your life or about things that you’ve observed recently.
Then write down three to five information questions.
Look at the sentences and questions you’ve created, and identify the last content word.
You may also want to mark the words that should be stressed in the sentence to make sure you’ve got the right intonation throughout the sentence.
Then take a moment and read your sentences and questions out loud.
Make sure that you’re rising to the most important content word and then falling down in pitch at the end.
Like I said, this fall in pitch could happen on a one- or two-syllable word, which means you have to do it more quickly.
Be sure to leave a comment and let me know how this practice exercise went for you.
Now that you understand falling intonation, head over to Rising Intonation in American English and learn about the most versatile intonation pattern. Then you can explore how to use pitch and intonation when speaking English.