Intonation For Clear Communication – Why Intonation Is So Important in American English

So you’re ready to improve your intonation! You’d like to communicate what you mean and express how you feel when speaking English.

You get that intonation involves pitch, but you realize that it goes beyond the rises and falls of your voice.

You want to understand why intonation is so important for clear communication.

In this video, we’re going to talk about why intonation matters so much in American English.

You’ll learn the most important roles intonation plays in conversations – and you’ll get a chance to practice as well.

Let’s get started!


What is intonation?

First things first, what is intonation?

Intonation is how we change and vary our pitch to communicate meaning.

When we listen to people speaking, we use clues from their intonation to understand and interpret what we hear.

Intonation works together with other elements of speech, such as pace, volume, pausing, stress, and emphasis, to help us express the deeper meaning behind our words.

You may hear people use the term “intonation” to describe all of these elements of prosody.

In everyday conversations, you may also hear people refer to intonation as tone of voice, or simply tone.

Whatever you call it, we’re talking about how you use your voice to provide additional information about what you’re saying.

While most people understand that we use intonation to express emotions, feelings, and attitudes, it actually plays several different roles in communication.

Let’s take a closer look at these linguistic functions of intonation.


Intonation Works Like Punctuation (Grammatical Function)

First things first, intonation has a grammatical function, which is a fancy way of saying that intonation in speech works like punctuation in writing.

At the most basic level, we use different intonation patterns:

  • to signal the difference between a statement and a question, as well as
  • to distinguish between an information question and a yes/no question.

For example, we use falling intonation at the end of declarative statements.

Take this sentence:

We’re planning to go on a hike this weekend. ↘️

The fall in pitch at the end of the sentence signals that I’m done talking.

Let’s try it:

We’re planning to go on a hike this weekend. ↘️

We also use falling intonation at the end of information questions, or questions that request details and begin with who, what, where, when, why, how, how much, how many, how often, and so on.

For example, let’s take a look at this question:

How long have you been working here? ↘️

The fall in pitch at the end signals that the question is finished so the other person can respond.

Let’s try it:

How long have you been working here? ↘️

On the other hand, we use rising intonation at the end of yes/no questions, or questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no.

For example:

Are you ready for dinner? ↗️

The rise in pitch at the end lets the other person know that you’re checking with them and you need them to confirm with a yes or no.

Give it a try:

Are you ready for dinner? ↗️

If you’re not sure where to start with intonation, focus on these three types of sentences.

This is the way people are expecting to hear you say neutral statements, typical information questions, and your everyday yes/no questions.


Besides using intonation at the end of statements and questions, we also use intonation in the middle of statements to signal breaks between phrases and clauses.

Think about how you use commas, colons, semi-colons, even parentheses to separate ideas when writing.

When speaking we’ll often use non-final intonation, or a slight rise in pitch, after clauses.

Which words we emphasize and where we pause also help make the grammatical structure of the sentence clear.

Here are some examples:

If you have a moment, ⤴️ I’d like to talk to you ⤴️ about this idea. ↘️

You can hear that slight rise in pitch where the comma appears in writing.

Give it a try:

If you have a moment, ⤴️ I’d like to talk to you ⤴️ about this idea. ↘️

Let’s look at another one:

When I last saw her, ⤴️ she was interviewing ⤴️ for a new job. ↘️

Once again, you can hear that slight rise that signals that I’m not quite done with the thought.

Let’s try it:

When I last saw her, ⤴️ she was interviewing ⤴️ for a new job. ↘️

To get started with these basic intonation patterns, check out this video on pitch and intonation when speaking.

Intonation Helps Us Emphasize Key Words (Accentual Function)

Next, intonation has an accentual function, which means we use it to emphasize or focus attention on certain words for meaning.

In this case, accentual refers to stress, or when we highlight one word more than the rest.

In every statement and question, one word will be stressed the most.

For neutral declarative statements and questions, it’s usually the last content word. This is the word that people expect to hear stressed the most.

However, we can change our meaning by stressing or emphasizing a different word.

You may stress a different word when you’re sharing new information in the conversation.

Let’s start with this normal, neutral statement:

Last night, we made cookies.

When you introduce new information into the conversation, you’ll highlight these details.

As you can imagine, we often introduce new information when we’re answering a question.

For example:

What kind of cookies did you make? We made peanut butter cookies.

As you can hear, I’m stressing “peanut” the most.

Now you try it:

We made peanut butter cookies.

Here’s another example:

What color car do you have? I have a blue car.

As you can hear, I’m answering the question by stressing a word that comes slightly earlier in the sentence.

Now you try it:

I have a blue car.

Similarly, you may focus attention on another word to more clearly express your meaning.

When said as a neutral statement of fact, this sentence would be stressed on the last word:

That’s my favorite movie.

By stressing the word “favorite,” you make it extra clear how you feel about the movie:

That’s my favorite movie.

Now you try:

That’s my favorite movie.

Last but not least, you can shift the emphasis around to contrast two ideas.

For example:

He grew up in Boston, but now he lives in California.

You can hear that the words “Boston” and “California” receive similar levels of stress.

This helps us understand the relationship between the two places.

Try it for yourself:

He grew up in Boston, but now he lives in California.

Here’s another example:

That’s a great idea, but I have an even better one.

As you can hear in the video, I’m contrasting “great” and “better” with my voice.

Now you try it:

That’s a great idea, but I have an even better one.

Stressing a different word for meaning may also be called inflection because you’re adding additional information with your voice.

To explore more examples like these, check out this video on how to change your meaning with your voice.

Intonation Expresses Emotions and Attitudes (Attitudinal Function)

Next, intonation has an attitudinal or emotional function.

As you can imagine, this means it reveals clues about the speaker’s mood, feelings, emotions, and attitudes.

The information we get from intonation may be about their attitude in general.

It could show the emotions behind what they’re saying.

Or it could reveal their feelings towards the person they’re talking to.

As always, context matters.

Some emotions that we express through intonation include:

  • happiness,
  • sadness,
  • annoyance,
  • frustration,
  • anger,
  • disgust,
  • excitement,
  • enthusiasm, and
  • joy.

You can also use intonation to show deference and respect, or to assert authority and demonstrate confidence.

Let’s practice with a few examples.

Steeper rises can show you’re excited or enthusiastic:

If the weather is nice tomorrow, I’d like to go to the beach. 😁

Give it a try:

If the weather is nice tomorrow, I’d like to go to the beach. 😁

More tentative sounding intonation reveals that you feel uncertai:

I was wondering if we could reschedule for next week. 🤔

Try it for yourself:

I was wondering if we could reschedule for next week. 🤔

Less pitch variety and flatter overall pitch can sound more serious.

I have to pick up some things at the grocery store. 😐

Now you try it:

I have to pick up some things at the grocery store. 😐

An even steeper rise at the end of a question may show curiosity and interest:

What have you been up to? 🤗

Give it a try:

What have you been up to? 🤗

To experiment with using intonation to express emotions, check out these intonation exercises.

Intonation Helps Us Communicate Ideas (Discourse Function)

One of the most important ways we use intonation is to signal how ideas go together when we’re speaking.

This is known as the discourse function of intonation, which is a fancy way to describe how we communicate ideas in conversation.

We already looked at how intonation works like punctuation to signal breaks between clauses.

We also use stress and intonation to break longer ideas into thought groups, which are shorter, more digestible chunks of words.

This means you can use your voice to mark where the phrase or idea begins and where it ends.

We use non-final intonation, or a slight rise in pitch, after a thought group.

This signals that we’re not done speaking yet.

Instead, we’re moving on to the next part of the idea.

Let’s revisit a couple of our examples and look at the thought groups.

We’re planning ⤴️ to go on a hike ⤴️ this weekend. ↘️

Now you try it:

We’re planning ⤴️ to go on a hike ⤴️ this weekend. ↘️

Let’s try another one:

When I last saw her, ⤴️ she was interviewing ⤴️ for a new job. ↘️

Give it a try:

When I last saw her, ⤴️ she was interviewing ⤴️ for a new job. ↘️

Thought groups are especially helpful during longer sentences.

For example:

Even though it’s raining ⤴️ at the moment, ⤴️ it’s supposed to be sunny ⤴️ later this afternoon. ↘️

Your turn:

Even though it’s raining ⤴️ at the moment, ⤴️ it’s supposed to be sunny ⤴️ later this afternoon. ↘️

You can hear that the slight rises between ideas keep us listening until the sentence is complete.


Intonation Helps Us Remember Ideas (Psychological Function)

On a related note, intonation has a psychological function, which means it makes ideas easier to understand, remember, and even say.

One of the reasons we break ideas into thought groups is to help other people process what we’re saying.

When someone speaks at length, but doesn’t pause, stress key words, or change their intonation, it takes more time to understand them.

It’s similar to how you feel when you read a block of text without any punctuation.

It may also be hard to remember what we heard because it wasn’t “packaged” in a way that helps us retain information.

You can also hear this use of intonation in the way we say lists. For example:

Traffic lights are red, ⤴️ yellow, ⤴️ and green. ↘️

Try saying it:

Traffic lights are red, ⤴️ yellow, ⤴️ and green. ↘️

Here’s another example:

I like to make smoothies with bananas, ⤴️ strawberries, ⤴️ pineapple, ⤴️ and mango. ↘️

Give it a try:

I like to make smoothies with bananas, ⤴️ strawberries, ⤴️ pineapple, ⤴️ and mango. ↘️

We also use intonation to make large numbers and phone numbers easier to say and remember.

Here’s how we would say this American phone number: 619-754-3211.

six one nine, ⤴️ seven five four, ⤴️ three two, ⤴️ one one ↘️

Now you try it:

six one nine, ⤴️ seven five four, ⤴️ three two, ⤴️ one one ↘️

As you can hear, intonation helps us digest large chunks of information so that we’re more likely to remember it.


Intonation Keeps Conversations Flowing (Conversation Management)

Next, intonation is used for conversation management, which means it helps keep a conversation going and flowing by helping us understand whose turn it is to speak.

This is where the three main intonation patterns – falling, rising, and non-final intonation – work together.

For example, we use a slight or steep rise between ideas to signal that we’re not done speaking yet.

We use a steep drop at the end to signal that the thought is complete, and the other person can respond or answer the question.

Alternatively, if we’re asking a yes/no question, the steep rise at the end signals that the other person can respond.

Let’s look at a few more examples to see how it works:

If you have a moment, ⤴️ I have a question ⤴️ I’ve been meaning to ask you. ↘️

Now you try it:

If you have a moment, ⤴️ I have a question ⤴️ I’ve been meaning to ask you. ↘️

Here’s another one:

When was the last time ⤴️ you made ⤴️ peanut butter cookies? ↘️

Give it a try:

When was the last time ⤴️ you made ⤴️ peanut butter cookies? ↘️

As you learned, we use rising intonation on yes/no questions, and this is because it signals that we’re checking or confirming information.

For example:

Do you want ⤴️ to go on a hike ⤴️ this weekend? ↗️

Now you try it:

Do you want ⤴️ to go on a hike ⤴️ this weekend? ↗️

This is why we may also use rising intonation when repeating an information question.

What time is the meeting? ↗️

If you can’t quite remember what time you decided on, then you’ll repeat the question with rising intonation so the other person understands you’re checking to be sure.

Now you try it:

What time is the meeting? ↗️


Intonation Expresses Our Identities (Indexical Function)

Last but not least, intonation signals your personal, social, or cultural identities.

In linguistics terms, this is called an indexical function.

In other words, it reveals which groups you belong to, and helps the other person understand how to relate to you.

As a non-native speaker, learning this aspect of intonation can be challenging because you’re not just learning the pitch patterns, you’re learning the cultural context as well.

When you pick up intonation patterns from friends, family, educators, and the media, you’re probably picking up some of these identity markers at the same time.

As you get curious about intonation, you’ll start noticing how it reflects our many identities.

People from different regions may use uptalk or more or less pitch variation throughout their speech, which can help you identify where they’re from.

Certain intonation patterns or speaking styles are common among people who share a certain profession. For example:

  • Teachers and educators often use a certain speaking style to sound approachable and engage their students.
  • Preachers and religious authorities often use a certain tone of voice that commands attention.
  • Transportation workers like conductors and bus drivers often recite stops or share information with a particular intonation pattern.

Since we’re used to hearing people speak this way, we’ve come to expect it.

Of course, there are many, many, many other ways that people use intonation and other elements of prosody to communicate their personal or group identities.

These are just a few examples to get you thinking.

What you need to remember is that intonation helps us express ourselves and connect to others.

It’s another reason why I often remind you that your voice is a powerful tool.


Tune In to Intonation and Get Curious

At this point, you may be feeling like there’s a lot you still need to explore about intonation.

What you want to do now is tune in to intonation and get curious.

When you start listening for these patterns, you’ll be able to recognize them all the time when you hear people speaking.

Ask yourself how people’s pitch, intonation, and prosody reveal the deeper meaning behind their words.

Compare what you hear to the patterns in other languages you speak.

When it comes to speaking with intonation, you have to experiment.

Try using these intonation patterns and see how people respond to you.

I can sing the praises of intonation all day long, but you have to experience it for yourself!

Of course, if you want my guidance on your intonation journey, I encourage you to check out the Intonation Clinic.

This course dives even deeper into pitch and intonation.

You’ll be able to practice and apply what you’ve learned, so that you feel more confident expressing what you mean

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2019, AND WAS UPDATED IN MAY 2021.

4 thoughts on “Intonation For Clear Communication – Why Intonation Is So Important in American English”

  1. your work on intonation and its functions has really wowed me! We always pay a sincere tribute to your job. Stay blessed!

    Reply

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