The Difference Between Stress and Intonation, Why Intonation Matters, and Other Intonation Myths

You’ve probably noticed that I love talking about stress and intonation. In my opinion, speaking with clear stress and expressive intonation will help native speakers understand you better.

You’ll communicate what you really mean, sound more natural, and feel more confident as a result.

Even if you recognize that stress and intonation are important, you may feel confused about why they matter, what they communicate, or how to get started changing the way you use your voice.

This is totally normal!

In this article and video, I want to clarify five myths about intonation that I often receive questions about.

This video will be more of an exploration of how stress and intonation relate to communication, rather than a step-by-step tutorial.

If you want more guidance on how to actually use stress and intonation, be sure to check out all the links to my related articles and videos.

Let’s discuss these five intonation myths.

Myth #1: Stress and intonation are the same thing.

You’ve probably heard people talk about stress and intonation as if they were the same thing.

However, it’s better to think of them as working together.

Stress and intonation are key elements of prosody, or the characteristics of speech beyond words that affect how information is communicated and understood.

Prosody includes:

  • pitch
  • stress
  • intonation
  • rhythm
  • pace, or speaking speed, and
  • loudness.

All of these elements work together to create meaning.

When we stress content words, or emphasize the important words of a sentence by making one syllable longer, louder and higher in pitch, we create the rhythm and melody of English.

In normal, neutral sentences, this rhythm and melody should be predictable and regular.

This is what we most often call sentence stress.

(I talk about this in depth in my video on sentence stress in American English.)

When we refer to stress, we’re talking about how we emphasize certain syllables of certain words, which includes changes in pitch, volume, syllable length, and vowel clarity.

Stress plays a role in intonation because native speakers are expecting to hear you stress sentences in a particular way.

Any changes in stress may signal a completely different meaning.

When we change stress through inflection, by emphasizing one word more than the others, by making its key syllable longer, louder, and higher in pitch, we can completely change the meaning.

Beyond changing which word receives the most stress, we can express different emotions, attitudes, feelings, and moods through rises and falls in pitch, by speaking with more or less pitch variation, or speaking with a wider or more limited pitch range.

We also use intonation for different conversational purposes, such as:

  • checking and confirming information
  • making observations
  • asking for information
  • indicating we’re still speaking
  • hesitating
  • giving tentative suggestions, and
  • expressing uncertainty.

Our pitch can rise or fall steeply or sharply. It can be a gradual climb or drop, or it can change through steps or a glide.

These changes in pitch can start on just about any word in the sentence.

Your intonation will change based on what you’re trying to express.

To summarize, stress refers to how we emphasize key syllables of key words.

Intonation refers to how we communicate additional meaning through rises and falls in pitch.

Myth #2: Intonation is just the ups and downs of speech.

Related to the confusion between stress and intonation, some people think that intonation is just the ups and downs, the rises and falls of your speech.

While you’ll definitely sound more like a native speaker if you increase the variety of pitch you use when speaking, it doesn’t stop at the ups and the downs.

If you’re mechanical in changing your pitch, just practicing steps up and down, you’ll probably still sound unnatural or robotic.

English rhythm and melody are regular, but not THAT regular.

After all, stress includes lengthened syllables, and rushing through words that just don’t matter.

We use volume and speed changes to communicate additional meaning.

We might stress a word for contrast, clarity, or emphasis.

We might include a steep rise or fall in pitch in order to sound excited, curious, doubtful or bored.

We use glides or pitch slides up or down on lengthened syllables just as much as steps, and you need to learn how to use them too.

Be sure to check out my video on pitch exercises in order to practice steps and glides and see the different ways we change our pitch in English.

Myth #3: It’s not possible for me to improve my intonation because I’m not fluent or I’m too old.

Even if you’re not yet fluent in English, you can start working on your intonation.

First of all, you want to do your best to master word and sentence stress so that your overall intonation makes sense.

You need to be consistently creating English rhythm so that people can hear when you stress a different word than expected, or when you change your pitch to express a different attitude.

Please remember that it takes practice to stress your words consistently.

At first, you’ll have to work at it as you continue to internalize English rhythm and stress patterns.

You might also have to train your ear to hear these variations in stress, pitch, and intonation.

But eventually it will click, and you’ll start doing it automatically. Trust the process.

As you get started with intonation, focus on the most common conversational uses of rising and falling intonation.

Make sure you’re asking information questions and saying normal sentences with falling intonation.

Be sure to ask yes/no questions with rising intonation.

From there, you can start practicing different emotions and attitudes.

Check out my intonation exercises video for some fun practice.

Once you’re more fluent and more comfortable speaking at length, then you can work on intonation in longer sentences and breaking your ideas into thought groups.

The sooner you can get started including intonation practice in your everyday routine, the better results you’ll have.

It’s not that intonation is too advanced for you, but you may need to deepen your social, emotional, and cultural sensitivity to the message that you’re conveying through your intonation.

The more sensitive you are, the more you’ll appreciate the importance of intonation.

The fact that you’re concerned about intonation shows that you’re partway there, so trust the process and keep going.

Myth #4: Intonation doesn’t matter.

You know my answer to this one. Yes, it does!

The way we emphasize a certain word or a pitch rise or fall can completely change the meaning.

If people ask you “What did you mean by that?”, they probably weren’t able to interpret your tone of voice.

I often hear this kind of comment from people who think what they have to say is more important than how it’s received by others.

The truth is, good communication is often more subtle than what you’re saying with your words, and whether they’re understood.

Your voice and the way you express yourself is influenced by a number of factors:

  • cultural background
  • gender
  • education level
  • your profession
  • how much authority you’re used to having when you’re speaking
  • socioeconomic level
  • your manners or politeness,
  • even your personality.

Get curious about why you speak the way you do in both your native language and in English.

Then you can adjust as necessary.

Quite honestly, I’ve run into communication challenges when speaking Spanish for this same reason!

I’ve spoken with too much authority and directness for the situation, and I’ve also tried to be too polite and ended up sounding unclear.

Adjusting to speaking a different language in a culture you weren’t raised in takes time, patience, and practice.

Because we use intonation to communicate different emotions and attitudes, to show compassion, interest, and connection, to be more direct, or to soften our language in order to sound more polite, it absolutely does matter.

Of course, you’ll find yourself in situations where your intonation doesn’t matter as much, because people understand that you’re a non-native speaker, and they’re more open-minded and patient.

But you’ll also have many interactions where intonation will help you communicate better, such as when you’re giving presentations, leading meetings, or in a job interview.

For many people, intonation helps them go from speaking fluently to actually sounding fluent.

Your speech will have better flow, and you’ll sound more culturally sensitive.

Rather than deciding it doesn’t matter, think about how intonation can help you improve how you sound. Then start experimenting!

Myth #5: We use intonation in my language so I don’t need to learn it.

If intonation is important in your language, then you’re lucky!

You’ll be able to relate what you learn about American intonation to what you already know about your own language.

After all, there are some characteristics about how we express emotions through intonation that tend to stay the same across languages.

However, once again, I would encourage you to get more curious about intonation.

We often express ourself in our native language without thinking about our tone of voice and what it means.

It’s unconscious.

When it comes to the most common intonation patterns in your language, you may be transferring these patterns directly into English, even though English uses intonation differently.

Your native language might use more pitch variation, or less.

You might use more rises and falls mid-sentence, or they might be used differently.

You might use different intonation patterns when asking a question, or when finalizing a statement.

In fact, intonation patterns vary between different varieties of English and even regional dialects.

If you’re speaking with Australian intonation in the United States, it might sound more tentative. If you’re speaking with British intonation, you might sound more serious or matter of fact.

The more curious you get about your intonation, the more you’ll understand how you sound when speaking English.

That will give you more control over how you use your voice.

Even by recording and editing my own YouTube videos, I’ve learned a lot about how I use intonation and prosody!

We can always learn more about communicating more effectively.

Bonus Myth: Intonation is only pronounced one way.

Have you noticed that people pronounce the word “intonation” differently?

I’ve always pronounced the word “intonation” following the typical pattern of words that end in -tion: /ˌɪntəˈneɪʃən/

In fact, this is the pronunciation you see when searching Google for the word “intonation.”

However, I started noticing that other accent and language coaches say the word “intonation” with a long “o” on the second syllable: /ˌɪntoʊˈneɪʃən/

Although it sounds wrong to me, it turns out that /ˌɪntoʊˈneɪʃən/ is another accepted pronunciation of the word.

So whether you hear people say /ˌɪntəˈneɪʃən/ or /ˌɪntoʊˈneɪʃən/, we’re talking about the same thing.

Your Turn

Now that we’ve discussed five myths about intonation, I’d love to hear from you! What else confuses you about stress, intonation, and prosody? What would you like me to clarify in a future video?

Leave a comment and let me know!

For more on why intonation matters, check out these videos:

Ready to work on your intonation? Consider joining the Intonation Clinic, where you’ll learn how to change your pitch to express your meaning through your tone of voice.

4 thoughts on “The Difference Between Stress and Intonation, Why Intonation Matters, and Other Intonation Myths”

  1. Hello. I am A Kenyan and English is our official language. I am pursuing a course in Linguistics. I am a first year hoping to be the best and become a lecturer. Any aid to my studies will be highly appreciated. Thanks in advance.

    • Thanks for introducing yourself and sharing your goals with me. I wish you the best of luck with your studies. Linguistics is a fascinating field!


Leave a Comment

You agree to share your name and email address with Kim in order to leave a comment. The data from this comment form will only be used to respond to your comment.