What happens when you’re not really worried about choosing the perfect words to express yourself anymore?
After all, you’ve been speaking English both professionally and personally for years, and you know you’ve got a great vocabulary!
If you’re like most non-native English speakers I work with, that’s when you start stressing about your pronunciation, wondering how you can finally get those tricky vowels right, and looking for ways to improve how you sound.
This is great, but you’re overlooking something super important: intonation.
Intonation is the rise and fall of your voice when speaking, the ups and the downs that give a language its music.
Why Intonation Matters in American English
Although correct and appropriate intonation helps you sound natural in American English, intonation is much more than that.
Intonation includes your tone, or the way you express a certain mood, feeling, or attitude through the sound of your voice.
When someone is happy, you can register their feelings without even understanding their words.
Similarly, we can usually detect anger, annoyance, sadness, frustration, surprise, and confusion just by listening to the rise and fall of someone’s voice.
Of course, intonation is different in every language, and that is why some English speakers hear a language like Russian or Chinese and think that the person is angry, or think that Italians sound excited, or that Germans sound serious.
Intonation even varies within a language; Americans can hear an Australian and think they are more relaxed and laid-back, or hear standard British English and think the person is bored.
These perceptions come from our personal experiences shaped by our native language and even the regional accent we speak with.
Because we often don’t think about intonation in our first language, it’s easy to forget how important intonation can be in communicating our feelings, inviting a conversation, and demonstrating authority in the workplace.
Intonation Helps You Have Better Conversations in English
Let’s talk about how improving your intonation can actually help you have better conversations in English.
By learning the conversational uses of intonation, you can start expressing your emotions and attitudes using much more than your vocabulary and grammar!
Remember, intonation can be key to deciding whether or not you even want to interact with a person!
You can choose how you want to sound with your intonation, and it’s easier to improve than other aspects of your pronunciation.
The good news? You can focus on one aspect of intonation at a time.
Master expressing just one attitude through rising, falling, or holding intonation, and then work on another.
Conversational Uses of Intonation
Here are the conversational uses of intonation that we’ll be looking at today:
- Basics of intonation in statements and questions
- Asking for information and checking your understanding
- Expressing emotions or attitudes like surprise or curiosity
- Expressing uncertainty or doubt
- Expressing enthusiasm or happiness
- Holding the floor
- Expressing indecision
- Expressing certainty and authority
- Expressing negative emotions: disappointment, disapproval, annoyance
1. Basics of Intonation in Statements and Questions
So that we are all on the same page, I want to do a quick view of the grammatical uses of intonation.
Starting at around the intermediate level of English, you start thinking about intonation in statements and questions.
In statements, our intonation rises and then falls on the last content word of the sentence. This last, quick fall in pitch indicates that we are done with the sentence.
Here is an example: I went to the grocery store after work today. The fall happens on the word today to signal that the sentence is complete.
When we ask questions, we use two types of intonation. When you ask an information question, or a wh-question, you want your listener to give you more information.
In this case, your intonation follows the same pattern as a statement. Your voice rises on the last content word, and then falls to let the person know you’re ready to hear their answer.
When you ask a yes-no question, you want to use rising intonation at the end of your question.
For example, when you ask, “Do you have any time to meet this afternoon?”, your intonation will rise starting with the word meet and rise steeply on the word “afternoon.”
This rising intonation indicates that you’re asking a question that requires confirmation from your listener.
Once you’ve mastered these important basics of intonation, it’s time to move on to using intonation to express your emotions, feelings, and attitude in conversation.
2. Asking for Information and Checking Your Understanding
As I mentioned above, we use rising intonation at the end of a yes/no question as our way of asking for information.
In other words, we’re basically requesting that the other person confirm the answer that we expect, or deny our initial impression or assumption.
In this way, the rising intonation at the end of the question signals that you are checking your understanding.
You want the other person to confirm that you are interpreting the situation correctly.
As you notice, many of the yes/no questions begin with an auxiliary (helping) verb or modal verb like is / are / will / could / does / do / would.
This is why this intonation pattern is commonly used with indirect or embedded questions we use to sound more polite.
Further, this works even when you turn a statement into a question or use a tag question. Here are two examples: You went to the museum today? You like ice cream, don’t you?
In both, your intonation will rise as if it were a yes-no question, steeply on the words “today” and the phrase “don’t you?”
You’ll notice that native English speakers often turn a statement into a question, just by shifting their intonation.
You can do this too – it’s a good way to sound natural even if you’re not using traditional question structure!
This rising intonation pattern is a clear signal to your listener that you expect to hear a response to clarify what you think, so it’s essential to learn how to use this intonation in conversation!
3. Expressing Emotions and Attitudes Like Surprise or Curiosity
Besides being commonly used when asking questions, rising intonation can be used to express several different emotions and attitudes, including surprise, shock, disbelief, interest, curiosity, and fascination.
In these cases, you’ll usually start with an interjection, or a single word or brief phrase that clearly expresses emotions in English, with clear, predictable intonation.
Here are some common interjections: “Wow!” “Oh my gawd!” “OMG!” “Really?” “Seriously?” “What?!”
These phrases will often be followed by a statement that ends with rising intonation. For example, you can say, “What?! He won the lottery?!” (As you can see, in writing, we usually show this shock or disbelief using both the question mark and exclamation point!)
Your intonation will end high on both statements, and your facial expression, body language, and even gestures will also demonstrate this emotion.
There are subtle, small differences between how emotions and attitudes actually sound, which you can hear in the tone of the voice rather than just the intonation.
If you’re not exactly sure what attitude someone has based on their intonation, be sure to watch the person’s facial expression.
4. Expressing Uncertainty or Doubt
Besides being used to ask a question or express surprise, interest, or curiosity, rising intonation can also show uncertainty or doubt.
You may hear this kind of intonation at the end of a sentence, or it may be expressed using “wavy” intonation throughout the sentence.
Expressing uncertainty with intonation allows you to convey doubt or suspicion without directly expressing it in words.
For example, instead of telling your colleague that he needs to hurry up to meet the deadline, you can use rising intonation with the following statement. “We’re going to finish on time?”
Your voice will not rise as much as when you are asking a question, but the indecision will be clear from the lift at the end of the sentence and a general wavy sound throughout the statement.
5. Expressing Enthusiasm or Happiness
When someone is happy, enthusiastic, or friendly, their intonation is going to reflect this.
In general, happy intonation includes several rises and falls within one statement, rather than the standard rise/fall at the end.
Think about how you feel when you talk to someone who is expressive.
Usually they have a smile on their face which is reflected in their intonation. Their intonation will almost sound as if their voice is bouncing every few words.
When you’re showing happiness through your intonation, your voice will rise several times, but you will still end your statement with a fall at the end.
6. Holding the Floor
Another intonation pattern that you should start to practice is holding intonation, which is when your voice does not rise or fall at the end of a statement.
Instead, it stays even, following the normal stress pattern of the sentence, until you finish by letting your voice fall at the end of your final thought.
When someone “holds the floor,” they signal to everyone listening that they are not done talking.
This expression refers to business meetings; when someone “has the floor,” they have the right to speak without interruption at a meeting. When someone “holds the floor,” they continue to speak so that other people can’t interrupt them yet.
One way to do this is by using a slight rise at the end of each statement, a way of signaling to everyone that you are not yet done talking.
To some degree, holding the floor can be compared to the rising intonation that you hear when you are listing a number of options. You only drop at the end of the sentence when you are finished speaking.
When holding the floor, you keep your voice up at the end of each statement to avoid interruptions.
It’s not quite the same as the rising intonation used in yes/no questions, which has a more dramatic rise.
Depending on the person, holding intonation can be a little more even, without the noticeable drop at the end of the sentence that signals a completed thought.
If you find that people interrupt you frequently when you are speaking English, you might want to try this intonation pattern.
This reminds your listener that you are still formulating and expressing your thoughts so that they can give you a chance to finish.
Be careful, though: this intonation pattern, which is also known as uptalk, is sometimes seen as uncertainty because it sounds like you are asking a question. Be sure to experiment to see how holding the floor works best for you.
7. Expressing Indecision
Similarly, you can express indecision through your intonation. When showing indecision, you do not use a standard rise to ask a question, or a clear, final fall to complete a thought.
Instead, you maintain your voice using holding intonation.
Your voice will stay even at the end of your statement, without a final drop.
You still express yourself using typical stress patterns, but you show indecision by not finalizing your thought.
Here are some examples of phrases and statements that are often said with holding intonation:
- Let’s see.
- Let’s see how it goes.
- I’m going to wait and see.
- I’m not sure.
- I haven’t decided yet.
- I don’t know who to vote for.
- I’m not sure which one to buy.
8. Expressing Certainty and Authority
On the other hand, if you want to show certainty or demonstrate authority, you want to very clearly express yourself using falling intonation.
As I mentioned earlier, falling intonation comes at the end of a statement and shows the other person that you are done speaking.
For this reason, it conveys a sense of certainty and finality to your statement.
You want to use falling intonation when responding to questions and giving information in order to other people to show your authority and demonstrate that you know what you are talking about.
If you feel people don’t take you seriously, you should try to emphasize the fall at the end of your statement.
The music of your native language may be different, so you could be ending higher than you want to at the end of your statements.
Try ending with a more marked, definitive fall to sound more certain of what you are saying.
You also notice falling intonation during interviews or Q&As (question and answer sessions), because the person asking the question is confident that they will get a response.
Think about how journalists interview the president or prime minister during press conferences, or how a possible employer might ask you about your experience.
For example, the question, “What did you learn from that experience?” will end with falling, final intonation, peaking at the word learn.
Lastly, we use falling intonation in tag questions that are rhetorical, or questions we already know the answer to.
When someone asks, “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”, they use falling intonation because they are making an observation, not really asking a question.
9. Expressing Negative Emotions: Disappointment, Disapproval, Annoyance
Although falling intonation does not necessarily express an emotion, you can also use it to express a negative emotion like disappointment, disapproval, or annoyance.
Think about the tone an irritated, frustrated parent would take with their teenager who has done something wrong.
While rising intonation can be used to express a positive emotion like excitement or enthusiasm, falling intonation often expresses the opposite.
Take the example, “I can’t believe you are going to quit your job!”
If this is a positive change in the person’s life, your voice will rise on the last word. If this is something that you disapprove of, your voice will fall at the end of the statement.
Once again, the person’s facial expressions, gestures, and overall tone will also clarify whether the emotion is positive or negative.
If you have heard that people think you are being too demanding or aggressive when you’re speaking English, pay attention to your intonation.
If your voice is not particularly expressive and you always end with falling intonation, it may not be clear when you are showing approval or curiosity.
Think about how you end all of your statements and questions, and adjust accordingly.
So now that you’ve learned nine different ways to use intonation in conversation, it’s time to practice.
Start listening very carefully to how native speakers express different emotions and attitudes when speaking. You can watch a favorite TV show, listen to a podcast, or observe normal people at a park or a café.
Sit with your notebook or note-taking app, and write down what you hear, as well as how the sentence ended.
Did the intonation rise or fall at the end? Was the intonation even throughout, or did you hear other rises and falls? What was the emotion you saw in the person’s facial expression or body language? How did the other person respond?
When you feel confident, start introducing different intonation patterns when you are speaking.
Think about how you ask different questions, how you show your emotions, and what you can do to make your meaning more clear.
Improving your intonation is a quick, efficient way to improve how you sound when speaking. You can see results with consistent practice.
Now it’s your turn! Write a sentence or question below and share which form of intonation you would use with it to express your attitude more clearly.