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How to Say “I don’t know” with the Right Tone in American English

Let’s look at a simple expression that is said so often by native speakers that it has its own recognizable stress and intonation pattern:

I don’t know.

In fact, we say “I don’t know” so often that it becomes abbreviated to “I dunno.”

You’ll also hear native speakers express the attitude of “not knowing” by simply voicing the sound of this intonation pattern and shrugging their shoulders. 🤷

That’s how unique this intonation pattern is!

After you practice the most common intonation for “I don’t know,” look at how you can shift the stress in the sentence to change the meaning:

  • You can suggest that someone else might know, simply by stressing “I.”
  • You can emphasize how much you don’t know by stressing “don’t.”
  • You can really show annoyance towards someone who keeps asking you the same question again and again by stressing each word individually.

As you’ll learn, you change your stress and choose a different intonation pattern to show a variety of emotions and attitudes – that’s how powerful your tone is!

(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 the short question, “Who knows?”

This is the fourth 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.

Say “I don’t know” With Its Recognizable Intonation Pattern

As I mentioned above, “I don’t know” is so common that it has a recognizable stress and intonation pattern that you can actually hear without saying the word!

You hear people say this expression so often that it becomes condensed and sounds like “I dunno.” (This common pronunciation of “I don’t know” is an example of connected speech.)

When you say, “I don’t know” with its normal tone, it shows uncertainty.

You can even express this attitude without saying the words: mmmMMMmmm.

Just by creating this tone, the sound of your voice can expresses the exact same feeling without actually saying the words “I don’t know.”

Because native speakers are so used to hearing that intonation pattern, you don’t actually need the words to recognize what’s being expressed!


Stressing a Different Word to Express Another Meaning

Now that we’ve looked at the most common way to stress “I don’t know,” let’s look at a couple of different ways that you can stress this expression.

If you’re trying to say that you personally don’t know, but somebody else might know, you can stress the word “I.”

*I* don’t know, but maybe he does. *I* don’t know.

By stressing “I” in that sentence, you’re indicating that somebody else might have the answer.

You can choose to add a short explanation afterwards in order to signal who knows, or just emphasize your desired meaning by using stress on “I”: *I* don’t know.


Emphasize Your Point By Stressing the Word “Don’t”

If you really want to emphasize to someone that you don’t know, you’re going to stress the word “don’t” even more than usual.

In a normal sentence, “don’t” would be stressed because it’s a negative, but the final word (“know”) would receive the most stress.

By putting extra stress and emphasis on “don’t” you’re making it extra clear that you don’t know: I DON’T know. 

You may choose to put extra emphasis on this word if someone persists in asking you or if you need to clarify what you mean.


Show Annoyance By Stressing Each Word Individually

If you’re getting annoyed with how much somebody’s asking you for information, you can change the way you respond.

Because you really just don’t know and you want to really make this crystal clear, you will stress each and every word individually and pause between the words: I. don’t. know.

By stating the words one by one with pauses between them, you’re making your lack of knowledge very clear to the other person while showing annoyance for the repeated questions: I. don’t. know.

If you normally stress each and every word of the sentence, you are accidentally expressing annoyance (learn more about how we use intonation in conversations here).

This is why you want to be sure to use the right tone for your intended meaning!


Your Turn

Now that you’ve learned the expected intonation pattern for “I don’t know” as well as how you can stress this sentence 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.

3 thoughts on “How to Say “I don’t know” with the Right Tone in American English”

  1. Lol! I’ve just been working on a clip from the True Detective with a learner where an irritated witness responds to the detective’s questions by stressing each word of “I don’t know” individually.

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