American Intonation Practice: Respond Naturally in Conversations in English with Rejoinders

Ever been in a conversation in English where you felt like someone was waiting for you to say something, but you weren’t sure exactly what?

They were probably waiting for a quick response to show that you were listening and interested to encourage them to go on.

We call these short responses or replies rejoinders, and they’re an essential part of an engaging conversation.

Rejoinders are sounds, words, short expressions, or questions that we often use to keep the conversation going. For example:

  • Mmhmm…
  • Huh?
  • Oh!
  • Uh-oh!
  • Yeah.

Rejoinders show that you’re listening and actively participating in the conversation.

They give an emotional response or reaction to the topic of conversation.

And most importantly, they encourage the other person to keep going and keep talking.


Rejoinders Help You Sound Natural During Conversations

Even though rejoinders are short, they play an important role in sounding natural during conversations.

We expect to hear them during the conversation, so if we don’t, we may feel like something’s off, something’s not right, or that we’re not connecting during this conversation.

As I mentioned, they’re an essential part of clear communication.

When the person you’re talking to doesn’t hear you use them, they may think you’re distracted, you’re not listening, or you don’t understand what they’re saying.

That’s why you might hear brief pauses or gaps during the conversation where the other person is leaving you space to react to what they’re saying.

In other words, they’re listening for these signals that they should keep talking.

In fancy linguistics terms, this aspect of conversation is called backchanneling.

Backchanneling is an important part of communication across languages and cultures.


Use Rejoinders in the Right Situations with the Right Intonation

However, as you’ll learn, rejoinders may vary from language to language or culture to culture.

That’s why in order to use rejoinders comfortably and confidently in English, you need to learn the appropriate situations when you can say them.

Of course, you also have to learn how to say them with the right intonation.

How you change your pitch when saying these rejoinders affects the emotion you express as well as the meaning you convey.

That’s why these short sounds, words, and expressions are a great way to practice changing your pitch to change your meaning. Let’s get started!


Rejoinders Help You Sound More Culturally Fluent

As I mentioned, getting your intonation right when practicing these rejoinders will help you sound more natural and culturally fluent.

You can find rejoinders in just about every language.

However, the sounds you use and how you say them will definitely vary from country to country.

When I lived in Chile, I was really surprised by one of the most common rejoinders that people used: a sound called “Mish!”

When you first hear this sound, you may be confused what it means – Mish!

But after you hear it in the context of a conversation over and over again, you start to understand what it means.

And of course when you start using it yourself in the right context, people feel like you really understand part of their culture.

Using rejoinders correctly is a simple thing you can do to feel more included during conversations with native speakers.


Intonation Patterns and Rejoinders

As we get started looking at rejoinders in American English, we’re going to be using three main intonation patterns.

We’ll use rising intonation to express surprise, interest, and disbelief.

We’ll use falling intonation or more flat intonation to signal disinterest, disappointment, or annoyance.

We’ll also use what I call holding intonation, which is a mid-level rise that signals that you want the other person to go on.

We also use this slight rise to signal a non-committal attitude, uncertainty, or indecision.

As we get started with the examples, pay attention to how my pitch changes in order to signal these different emotions and attitudes.

You’ll definitely understand how to better use intonation to respond in conversations!


Practice Intonation in Conversations with Rejoinders

Let’s start with simple rejoinders that can be used for a number of responses:

  • Yes
  • Yeah
  • No
  • Mmhmm
  • Huh
  • Uh-huh
  • Oh
  • Uh-oh
  • Wow
  • What
  • Right
  • Sure
  • Aww
  • Oh no
  • Hmm

You’ll see how changing the intonation pattern can completely change the meaning.

After all, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!

As we go through the practice exercises, I play two roles in the video lesson.

First, you’ll hear me say something as the person leading the conversation. Then you’ll hear the rejoinders in response to what was just said.

You’ll get to practice the rejoinder a few times along with me so that you get more comfortable changing your intonation.


Yes

Let’s begin with one of the most common words in the English language: Yes.

Hey Kim? Yes? Yes? Yes?

Using rising intonation with “yes” signals that you’re listening and encourages the other person to continue talking.

Try it again: Hey Kim? Yes? Yes? Yes?

Are you ready? Yes! Yes! Yes!

This intonation signals exactly how you feel: enthusiastic and excited.

One more time: Are you ready? Yes! Yes! Yes!

Can we begin? Yes. Yes. Yes.

The neutral falling intonation signals your affirmative agreement.

Let’s try it again: Can we begin? Yes. Yes. Yes.


Yeah

Now, let’s move on to a related word that we often use in casual conversations: Yeah.

You won’t believe what happened! Yeah? Yeah? Yeah?

The rising intonation on this word signals curiosity and interest in what the person’s going to say.

It also echoes the intonation that they used in their statement.

Let’s try it one more time: You won’t believe what happened! Yeah? Yeah? Yeah?

I won the award! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

The high rise within this response signals your enthusiasm for the person’s news.

Repeat along with me: I won the award. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

We didn’t finish on time. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

The flat, falling intonation signals annoyance or frustration.

Try it again: We didn’t finish on time. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.


No

Now let’s switch it around and talk about using the word “no.”

Did you call me? No. No. No.

The neutral falling intonation signals that you simply didn’t call the person without expressing any added emotion.

Let’s repeat it again: Did you call me? No. No. No.

Want pizza for dinner? No… No… No…

The wavy, mid-level rise on this word signals indecision and uncertainty.

You could express a very similar emotion using the word “yeah.”

Watch the video to hear how similar they are: Want pizza for dinner? Yeah… Yeah… No… No…

Either way you’re expressing indecision or a non-committal attitude. It’s clear to the other person that you’re not really sure about the pizza.

Try it one more time: Want pizza for dinner? No… No… No…

They didn’t show up. No! No! No!

The steep fall on this word signals annoyance as well as a little disbelief in what happened.

Repeat it another time: They didn’t show up. No! No! No!


Mmhmm

Now let’s move on to a sound that is very commonly used as a rejoinder: mmhmm.

So last week I went to the eye doctor… Mmhmm… Mmhmm… Mmhmm…

Using the sound “mmhmm” with a wavy half rise signals that you’re encouraging the other person to go on and tell you the rest of the story.

It also echoes the intonation that they used at the end of their statements signaling that they weren’t done talking yet.

Let’s try it again: So last week I went to the eye doctor… Mmhmm… Mmhmm… Mmhmm…

Did you enjoy the movie? Mmhmm… Mmhmm… Mmhmm…

The somewhat wavy, non-committal intonation signals that the other person’s agreeing, but they don’t 100% mean it.

They may be feeling like they need to agree, but the truth is they didn’t enjoy the movie.

Repeat it a few more times: Did you enjoy the movie? Mmhmm… Mmhmm… Mmhmm…

I think we should accept the proposal. Mmhmm! Mmhmm! Mmhmm!

Even though we’re using a short sound with our mouths closed, we’re still expressing our affirmative agreement.

One more time: I think we should accept the proposal. Mmhmm! Mmhmm! Mmhmm!


Huh

Now let’s try it with another very common sound: Huh?

Did you hear about the shark sighting? Huh? Huh? Huh?

The rising intonation after this sound signals surprise because you haven’t heard what the other person’s talking about. It encourages them to tell you more.

Try it again: Did you hear about the shark sighting? Huh? Huh? Huh?

They said they didn’t have room in the budget. Huh. Huh. Huh.

The falling intonation on this statement signals disappointment and a little bit of surprise that they didn’t have room in the budget.

Let’s repeat it: They said they don’t have room in the budget. Huh. Huh. Huh.

They introduced a plant-based burger. Huh. Huh. Huh.

This intonation signals a little bit of surprise and interest. It encourages the other person to tell you a little more.

One more time: They introduced a plant-based burger. Huh. Huh. Huh.


Uh-huh

Now let’s put two sounds together to make another common rejoinder: uh-huh.

Isn’t this the best pie you’ve tasted? Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Uh-huh!

As you can hear, I’m saying the rejoinder with enthusiastic intonation and echoing the other person’s exclamation.

Repeat it a few more times: Isn’t this the best pie you’ve tasted? Uh-huh! Uh-huh! Uh-huh!

I heard back from the research team. Uh-huh… Uh-huh… Uh-huh…

By using this slight rise, I’m encouraging the other person to go on and tell me the rest of the story.

Let’s try it again: I heard back from the research team. Uh-huh… Uh-huh… Uh-huh…

This is a super common intonation pattern during conversations.

They lost the game last night. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

By using flatter intonation, I’m signaling that I already know what happened and I’m disappointed.

Say it again: They lost the game last night. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.


Oh

Now let’s talk about using the word and the sound “oh.”

I finally saw last year’s Oscar winner. Oh? Oh? Oh?

The rising intonation after this word encourages the other person to tell me more.

The story may be a little surprising because it’s been so long since last year’s Oscars.

One more time: I finally saw last year’s Oscar winner. Oh? Oh? Oh?

I won’t be able to make it to your party. Oh. Oh. Oh.

The steep drop in the intonation shows disappointment that the other person can’t make it.

Try it again: I won’t be able to make it to your party. Oh. Oh. Oh.

That gift was from my cousin. Oh! Oh! Oh!

This intonation signals that I just remembered what the other person was telling me.

Let’s repeat it a few more times: That gift was from my cousin. Oh! Oh! Oh!


Uh-oh

Once again, if we add two sounds together, we get another rejoinder: uh-oh.

He can’t find his car keys. Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh!

Using this type of intonation with “uh-oh” signals that something bad might happen.

Let’s go over it again: He can’t find his car keys. Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh!

The CEO flew in to meet with the whole team. Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh!

The slight waviness in this intonation signals a little bit of dread or negative anticipation of what might come.

Repeat it along with me: The CEO flew in to meet with the whole team. Uh-oh! Uh-oh! Uh-oh!

They haven’t had power for a week. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh.

This intonation echoes what the other person just said, signaling my reaction to what I heard.

Try it one more time: They haven’t had power for a week. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. Uh-oh.


Wow

Now let’s look at another rejoinder that we very often use in conversations: wow.

She got into her first choice school. Wow! Wow! Wow!

The higher pitch on this word signals enthusiasm for what I heard.

Say it again: She got into her first choice school. Wow!Wow! Wow!

He broke up with her by text. Wow. Wow. Wow.

The flatter intonation shows disbelief at this person’s actions.

Repeat it a few more times: He broke up with her by text. Wow. Wow. Wow.

The business lost 10 million last year. Wow! Wow! Wow!

By holding the vowel sound in this word, I’m showing shock at what I heard.

Try it one more time: The business lost 10 million last year. Wow! Wow! Wow!


What

Let’s move on to a question word that’s often used as a response: what.

He got fired last week. What? What? What?

The rising intonation on this question signals shock and surprise.

Let’s repeat it: He got fired last week. What? What? What?

You’re not going to like this. What. What. What.

The flat intonation on this reply signals annoyance because the other person already indicated that I won’t like it.

Say it a couple more times: You’re not going to like this. What. What. What.

They rejected my proposal. What? What? What?

My intonation shows disbelief and a negative response to this bad news that the other person got.

Try it again: They rejected my proposal. What? What? What?


Right

Here’s another word that we often use in conversations: right.

This is the coolest sunset ever. Right? Right? Right?

In this context, rising intonation on the word “right” signals agreement.

Say it a few more times: This is the coolest sunset ever. Right? Right? Right?

We need to take a left here. Right. Right. Right.

Using neutral falling intonation signals that you agree and you’re going to do what the other person reminded you of.

Repeat it along with me: We need to take a left here. Right. Right. Right.

I’m so sorry I’m late. Right. Right. Right.

The steep falling intonation signals annoyance. Maybe the other person’s always late or they didn’t bother to tell me that they were going to be delayed.

One more time: I’m so sorry I’m late. Right. Right. Right.


Sure

Here’s another word that we often use to reply in conversations: sure.

Want to go out dancing? Sure. Sure. Sure.

The waviness in the intonation signals that I’m not 100% convinced that I want to go. I’m expecting the other person to pick up on how I feel.

Try it again: Want to go out dancing? Sure. Sure. Sure.

I’m going to climb a mountain this year. Sure. Sure. Sure.

The rise and fall on this word signals disbelief. I’m not convinced that the other person will follow through.

Say it along with me: I’m going to climb a mountain this year. Sure. Sure. Sure.

Want to order a pizza? Sure! Sure! Sure!

This intonation signals agreement.

Let’s repeat it: Want to order a pizza? Sure! Sure! Sure!


Aww

Now, let’s look at another sound: aww.

He didn’t get accepted. Aww. Aww. Aww.

This intonation pattern shows disappointment and empathy for what the other person’s going through.

One more time: He didn’t get accepted. Aww. Aww. Aww.

Isn’t this the cutest puppy? Aww! Aww! Aww!

By using a higher pitch, I’m showing that I do think the puppy is really cute.

Repeat after me: Isn’t this the cutest puppy? Aww! Aww! Aww!

The team won’t get their bonuses until the boss gets back from vacation. Aww. Aww. Aww.

The falling intonation signals disappointment and a little bit of annoyance.

Say it a few more times: The team won’t get their bonuses until the boss gets back from vacation. Aww. Aww. Aww.


Oh no

Here’s another pair of sounds that we often use in conversation: oh no.

You won’t believe what happened to me yesterday. Oh no… Oh no… Oh no…

This intonation signals that you’re ready to hear what the other person’s about to say, but that you’re kind of fearing what they’re going to tell you.

Try it along with me: You won’t believe what happened to me yesterday. Oh no… Oh no… Oh no…

I got locked out of my house. Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!

This intonation echoes the emotion that you expect the other person to be feeling.

Say it again: I got locked out of my house. Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!

Can I borrow some money? Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.

This flatter intonation signals annoyance and rejection of what the other person asked.

One more time: Can I borrow some money? Oh no. Oh no. Oh no.


Hmm

Let’s try one more common sound that we use as a rejoinder: hmm.

Do you have a minute to talk? Hmm? Hmm? Hmm?

The rising intonation signals that you’re open to hearing what the other person has to say.

Repeat it after me: Do you have a minute to talk? Hmm? Hmm? Hmm?

I’m not sure what to do. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.

The slight waviness in my intonation signals that I’m not committing, I’m leaving it up to the other person.

Try saying it again: I’m not sure what to do. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.

This is the sound we use when we’re thinking about what the other person’s saying: Hmm.

He was an hour late to work. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.

The flatness and the fall in this intonation signals annoyance.

Last chance to repeat: He was an hour late to work. Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.


Respond Naturally in Conversations with Rejoinders

As you can hear, changing the way your pitch rises and falls on these short words or sounds can completely change the meaning.

At times you want to echo how the other person is feeling.

You may want to express your own emotions or encourage the other person to keep talking.

Which intonation pattern you should use with these rejoinders completely depends on the context.


Your Turn

Now that you’ve learned all of these different rejoinders and intonation patterns, let’s put them into practice.

How would you respond to these statements to show that you’re listening? Leave a comment with the rejoinder and the intonation you would use to respond.

The rejoinder and the intonation you choose will depend on what you want to express

  1. Want to train for a marathon with me this spring?
  2. The client backed out at the last minute.
  3. Did you hear the big news?

If you’d like even more practice with intonation in conversations, check out the Intonation Clinic. This American intonation course will help you feel confident that you’re expressing the right emotions, attitude, and meaning through your tone of voice.

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