Let’s look at how to use stress and intonation with a common question that you can use for a variety of purposes:
What do you think?
Because this question asked so frequently, it often sounds like, “Whaddya think?” or “Whadja think?” (These reductions are an example of connected speech.)
But as you’ll learn, you can also vary your intonation on this short question to express different meanings:
- You can seek someone’s opinion using normal question intonation.
- You can excitedly ask for opinions using checking and confirming intonation.
- You can return the question back to the other person by stressing “you.”
- You can really encourage the person to give their own opinion by stressing “do.”
- You can express sarcasm, negativity, or resignation by using a flat tone and dropping your voice at the end.
By now, you probably understand why I’ve chosen to explain intonation patterns with shorter questions and phrases (you may want to review the explanations for “How are you?“, “Really?“, “What was that?“, and “I don’t know.“)
Remember, understanding the tone of native speakers will help you decipher their meaning, even when you miss a word.
Using appropriate intonation can help you express your ideas more clearly, even if you make a mistake.
(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 intonation patterns will become more familiar to you, and you’ll notice that you sound more expressive.
You can also apply these intonation patterns to these similar questions:
- What are your thoughts?
- What do you believe?
- What’s your opinion?
Ask “What Do You Think?” With Normal Information Question Intonation
In most cases, when you ask the question “What do you think?”, your pitch will rise and then fall at the end, just like normal information questions: What do you think?
Because “think” is the most important word in that question, it will receive the most stress in the sentence (which means it will be the longest, loudest, and highest in pitch.)
Your voice will rise most on the word “think” and then drop down at the end to indicate that you’ve ended your question.
Use Rising Intonation to Check and Confirm
If you want to use this question in order to check and confirm something you’re not quite sure of with another person, you will change your intonation in order to prompt a response.
When you really want to get them to share their opinion, you can ask the question with a steeper rise at the end: What do you think???
This more exaggerated question intonation indicates that you’re seeking their opinion and asking them to urgently share it.
For this reason, people often ask the question “What do you think?” with additional excitement and enthusiasm expressed by a rising tone: What do you think?!?!
This high pitch signals that we really want to hear what you have to say and anxiously waiting for your feedback.
Encourage The Other Person to Respond by Stressing “You”
To take this a step further, you may choose to emphasize the word “you” even more to indicate that you are waiting for the other person’s opinion.
For example, you may have already shared your opinion, and you’d like them to respond with their opinion, so you’ll repeat the question by stressing “you”: What do YOU think?
Or if you feel they are sharing what other people think without fully expressing their own opinion, you can encourage them to tell you what they think by emphasizing the word “you”: What do YOU think?
In this case, you’ll stress the word “you” by lengthening it, making it louder, and making it the highest in pitch. To end the question, you’ll drop your pitch after “you,” which makes your meaning clear.
Indicate the Need to Respond By Stressing the Word “Do”
If you feel like the other person hasn’t fully stated their opinion or may even be avoiding the question, you can emphasize the word “do”: What DO you think?
The word “do” would not normally be stressed, so bringing extra attention to this word changes the meaning of the question.
Stressing “do” indicates that you really want the other person to state their opinion.
This shift in stress is a way of repeating the question while also indicating that you don’t yet have a clear answer.
How to Show Negative Feelings with the Question “What Do You Think?”
Last but not least, sometimes we use the question “What do you think?” as a statement in order to show that we feel annoyed, dejected or a little depressed.
In this case, we would use flat intonation that shows very little pitch variation throughout the phrase.
For example, if someone asks, “Oh, how did your day go?” and you respond with a flat tone – “What do you think…” – this intonation shows that something expected or negative happened.
If your friend has a job interview or a big meeting with the boss, and you ask “How’d it go?”, they might say “What do you think. Not so well.”
With flat, unexpressive intonation, you can hear in their voice that their day or their interview or their interaction with their boss didn’t go well.
We often show this negative attitude by stressing the word “you” and then just keeping the overall pitch very low to express annoyance.
Remember, flat intonation shows annoyance, whereas a normal question, “What do you think?” would have much more variation. (Be sure to watch the video to hear the difference!)
Now that you’ve learned several different ways to ask “What do you think?” 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.