Ready to learn how to use rising intonation?
In this article and video, we’re going to talk about how to use rising intonation in order to ask questions in American English.
At the end, you’ll also learn the many other reasons that you may hear native speakers use rising intonation when speaking English.
While falling intonation is the most common intonation pattern in American English, rising intonation is the most versatile.
In order to better understand native English speakers and clearly convey your meaning, you need to understand how rising intonation is used to communicate a wide variety of emotions depending on the context and depending on the way the tone changes throughout the sentence.
What is Rising Intonation?
First things first: what do we mean by rising intonation?
Rising intonation describes when our pitch rises from the stressed syllable of the last content word of the sentence and continues to climb.
Depending on the context and the emotion or attitude you’re trying to convey with your tone, rising intonation may start earlier in the sentence and then climb all the way to the end.
This type of intonation signals that we need clarification or confirmation from the person we’re interacting with.
Why We Use Rising Intonation in American English
Why do we use rising intonation?
- We use rising intonation on yes/no questions. (Yes/no questions are questions we can answer with a simple yes or no.)
- We use rising intonation on a statement in order to signal that we’re asking the statement as a question.
- We use rising intonation when we’d like to check or confirm something.
- We use rising intonation to signal uncertainty or doubt.
- When we use rising intonation mid-sentence, it signals to the other person that we haven’t completed our thought or idea, and suggests that they shouldn’t interrupt us. They should give us a moment to finish what we’re saying.
- In American culture, we often use rising intonation to sound more friendly or approachable.
At the end of the video, I’ll give more details on how we use rising intonation to communicate a certain feeling or attitude towards the person you’re speaking with.
Practice Rising Tone in Example Yes/No Questions
Rather than simply discuss the idea of rising intonation, let’s practice.
First, let’s start looking at a number of yes/no questions. Listen to how my tone rises from the last content word to the end of the question.
Are you ready to go?
As you can hear in the video, my pitch is rising towards the end of the question, especially on the last content word, “go”: Are you ready to GO?
By using rising intonation, I’m checking with the other person to see if they’re ready.
With this type of question, rising intonation signals that I’m genuinely curious to hear if they’re ready to go.
If I use a different type of intonation or a flat tone, it may sound like I’m annoyed at the other person.
This is why learning to master rising intonation is so important if you’re asking yes/no questions.
Let’s look at another example.
Do you have any time to meet this afternoon?
As you can hear, there’s a rise, especially from the word “afternoon,” the last content word of the sentence.
This is signaling that I want to know if the person has any time to meet: Do you have any time to meet this afterNOON?
That steep rise at the end shows my genuine interest in hearing yes or no.
Let’s try another example.
Have you seen it?
If you’re asking someone if they’ve seen a certain TV show or movie, you’re going to rise from “seen” and up to “it”: Have you SEEN it?
“Seen” is the last content word in that question. You’re asking the other person in order to see if they’ve seen it or not.
You’re genuinely interested in them giving you a response to that question.
Here’s another example.
Wouldn’t he have told us?
In this example, we’re climbing from the word “told” up to “us” and finishing the question: Wouldn’t he have TOLD us?
This use of rising intonation signals that I’m genuinely curious.
Here’s one more example.
Do you want to have lunch now?
As you can hear, my tone is climbing from “lunch” up through “now”: Do you want to have LUNCH now?
“Lunch” is the most important word in this question, so my tone is going to climb to the end.
My tone is signaling that I would like an answer to the question.
In all of those questions, if I used falling intonation, it would signal that I’m not really looking for a response.
Practice Asking Statements as Questions with Rising Intonation
As I mentioned earlier in the video, we can also ask statements as questions simply by using rising intonation.
When we turn a statement into a question with this type of intonation, it signals that we’d like to check or confirm our understanding with the other person.
We’re looking for them to say “yes” or “no” in order to confirm whether or not we’ve got it right.
Let’s try it out.
You’re from Boston?
When I use rising intonation on that statement, I may not be sure, or I would like the other person to confirm something that I think is true.
Here’s another example.
You went to the gym?
When I turn this type of statement into a question, I’m signaling that I’m not entirely sure, maybe I misheard a certain word, or it surprises me.
Let’s try another one.
You moved here three years ago?
As you can hear, I’m rising from the word “years” in order to question the information that I think is true.
That rising intonation suggests that I would like to know whether or not I’m right about the information I think I understand.
Here’s another one.
You haven’t seen it?
Instead of asking, “Have you seen it?” as in the previous example, I’m asking, “You haven’t seen it?” because perhaps I find that a little surprising, or I’m not sure, I can’t quite remember, so I’d like the other person to give a little more information.
One more example:
You’re not hungry?
I’m asking this statement as a question because I find it a little bit surprising or I’m not sure I understood.
That rise at the end of the question signals that I’m genuinely interested in hearing whether or not the other person is hungry.
Practice Rising Intonation in Tag Questions
We also use rising intonation when asking tag questions. The rising intonation suggests that we’re not sure, and we’d like a response from the other person.
As I mentioned in my video on falling intonation, falling intonation signals that you’re just making an observation.
Rising intonation suggests that you’d like them to confirm with you.
It’s raining, isn’t it?
Maybe you’re not sure. The forecast has been a little bit iffy all day and you want to double check.
Here’s another example.
You’ve been waiting for a while, haven’t you?
Maybe you think you’ve heard the person mention that they’ve been waiting for a response for a long time, so you’re checking and confirming that.
As I mentioned earlier, we use rising intonation in order to check and confirm with the other person when you’re not entirely sure.
Practice Rising Intonation Rejoinders and Filler Words and Expressions
You’ll often hear rising intonation on short words or phrases (called rejoinders) that we use in order to check and confirm what the other person said.
You’ll commonly hear this in natural speech when the other person’s using these filler words or phrases in order to keep the flow of the conversation going.
(If you watch any of my live videos, you’ll notice I often throw in a couple of these phrases in order to check and confirm with my audience that they follow what I’m saying.)
Here are a couple of examples.
It’s super common to use rising intonation with the word “right” in order to check and confirm that the other person is following.
Similarly, if we want the other person to say that they understand, we may say, “You know?” in order to signal that we would like the other person to confirm they understand what we feel.
We’re using that checking and confirming intonation on the word “okay” in order to check and confirm that things are okay.
If you notice native English speakers using these short little words and phrases with rising intonation, they’re probably looking for some sort of signal from you in order for them to keep going because they trust that you understand what they said, or that you relate to what they said.
This is an example of what we call active listening: when we signal to the other person that we follow what they’re saying or we understand how they feel.
How Americans Use Rising Intonation to Signal Emotions and Attitudes
Now let’s talk about how rising intonation can signal certain attitudes in American English.
As I mentioned earlier, rising intonation is often used in order to sound more friendly and approachable.
Depending on the person and the way that they speak, you may hear rising intonation throughout all of their sentences.
There’s also a tendency in American culture to end your statements with rising intonation, which is often called “uptalk” or “upspeak.”
You’ll notice this characteristic among younger people in various English speaking cultures. Because this use of rising intonation is so cultural (and so often criticized), I’m going to talk about it in more depth in another video.
Most importantly, I want you to observe whether you notice rising intonation at the end of statements in natural speech.
If you *do* notice rising intonation at the end of statements, I want you to think about the context:
- Do you think the person’s trying to sound friendly or approachable?
- Do they sound uncertain?
- Are they younger and more youthful?
- Do they sound a little more happy for any particular reason?
There are so many reasons that someone may end their statements with rising intonation.
Different levels of rising intonation can be used in order to express a variety of emotions and attitudes in English.
The steepness of the rise throughout the entire statement or question is going to signal what emotion the other person’s expressing.
You’ll also need to observe different cues, like their facial expressions or their body language, the way they use intonation throughout all of their sentences, as well as the context.
Rising intonation can show curiosity, surprise, or excitement. Do any of these emotions make sense based on what you’re talking about?
Rising intonation may be used to show disbelief or doubt, such as when you are checking and confirming because you don’t believe what the other person said.
Understanding Rising Intonation Mid-Sentence or Mid-Idea
As I mentioned at the beginning of the video, rising intonation mid-sentence may signal that you haven’t completed a thought yet.
At times, people (including me) will end sentence with rising intonation when they’re not done with the full idea.
They may have finished a particular statement, but they’d like you to not interrupt them until they finish completing their thoughts.
There are a few other reasons why people may use rising intonation in order to signal they’re not done talking.
For starters, they may be used to being interrupted. Unfortunately, this is fairly common for women in the workplace, where we are often interrupted by male colleagues.
Many women use rising intonation in order to encourage the other person to wait until they finish their idea.
You may also hear rising intonation mid-thought in order to sound a little more interesting, to keep the other person listening, to keep them waiting to hear what’s going to come next.
When you’re hearing rising intonation in these situations, pay attention to the context.
Pay attention to how it helps you follow the other person’s thoughts. Does it signal that they’re not quite done talking, and they’re not ready for someone to respond?
Lastly, there may be a negative use of rising intonation at the end of the sentence.
If someone doesn’t believe that you understand them or that you follow their idea, they may use a little bit of rising intonation at the end of all of their sentences in order to see if you understand what they’re saying.
This is why some people avoid using rising intonation at the end of their statements because it can sound like you don’t trust the other person to follow what you’re saying.
In this case, rising intonation can sound condescending or rude, like you don’t think the other person understands exactly what it is you’re trying to express.
The Relationship of Rising Intonation to Sounding Authoritative or Uncertain
As you continue to advance your understanding of intonation, you’ll start to notice that people have a lot of perspectives on whether or not you should use rising intonation in your speech.
For the most part, people think that women sound less authoritative when they use more rising intonation.
They should use more falling intonation in order to show they’re in charge.
However, a lot of women use rising intonation, especially when interacting with other women, because it sounds more friendly and approachable.
Similarly, men may sound a little more friendly and approachable if they use more rising intonation, too.
You will hear men use rising intonation at the end of their statements as much as women.
In general, we tend to notice women’s voices because our pitch is usually higher and so this tone is more noticeable.
As I’ve really focused my attention on intonation, I notice how often men use rising intonation with their statements as well.
(And we haven’t even talked about how rising tone is more common in countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland!)
In this case, I encourage you to become an observer. Pay attention to how people use rising intonation in order to communicate in different situations.
This is where context is really key to understanding why the person is using rising intonation and what it may signal.
Be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you’ve noticed about rising intonation when listening to people speaking English!
Create Your Own Examples with Rising Intonation
Now that you understand how we use rising intonation with yes/no questions, with statements that we turn into questions, with tag questions, and with rejoinders, be sure to practice with your own examples.
Write three to five questions and sentences and try saying them with rising intonation.
Remember, your intonation should rise from the stressed syllable on the last content word in that question or statement.
The most important content word will depend on the information that you’re trying to check and confirm, or the way that you’re asking the question.
(Remember to leave a comment and let me know how you did with the exercise.)
As you can see, rising intonation has a lot of uses in American English, but it’s important to use it well.
First, be sure to master how we use rising intonation to check and confirm with other people.
From there, continue to focus on the different uses of rising intonation in order to communicate emotions and attitudes.
The more observant you can be about how we use intonation, the better you’ll be able to use it like a native English speaker.
Next, watch my other videos on stress and intonation so that you can start mastering intonation patterns in American English. Learn about falling intonation in American English and then move on to sentence stress, or how we emphasize content words and create the rhythm and melody of English.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment – I’ll definitely be making more videos on intonation soon.