English with Nab

Intonation – How stressing the words can change the meaning of what you say

Intonation is the way we use pitch when we speak. Intonation helps convey meaning, emotion, and mood beyond words. Changing the intonation of a sentence, while using the same exact words, can completely change its meaning.

For example:

If a friend says to you:

  • the rising intonation on “like” means your friend is surprised that you would like a shirt like this

But if the intonation rises on “this:”

  • it means your friend isn’t sure which shirt you’re talking about

If a friend says to you:

  • the intonation rising on “that” means your friend had imagined your sister differently

But if the intonation rises on “your:”

  • it means your friend thought it was someone else’s sister

Falling Intonation: When the pitch falls at the end of a sentence, indicating that it is coming to an end.

For example:

“He wants to go buy some …

Falling intonation is used for:

  • Declarative statements:
    • “I need to get a 
    • “My name is
  • Imperative sentences:
    • “Go to 
    • “Stop and 
  • Exclamations:
    • “How nice of
    • “It’s my birthday
  • “What/Why/Where/When” questions:
    • “Which country did you go to last
    • “Why are you

Rising Intonation: When pitch rises and stays high at the end of a sentence, indicating that a question is being asked and a response is expected.

For example:

  • “Do you think I

Rising intonation is found in:

  • Yes/No questions
    • “Did you finish your
    • “Do you go to 
  • Expression of doubt
    • “Are you sure it’s in 
  • Expression of surprise
    • “Oh my goodness, you’re 

Rise-Fall Intonation: There are several uses for a rising, then falling pitch, including, 

a) expecting or demanding agreement as in tag questions, 

b) when reinforcing adverbs expressed as after-thoughts, or 

c) if two statements or actions are part of a sequence of related events.

  • Affirming Statements:
    • “Today is the 
    • “It’s a little 
  • Reinforcing Adverbs:
    • “They said they’d do whatever
  • Two related actions:
    • “I am 
  • Listing (rise-rise-fall):
    • “I have 

In English there are neutral pitches, high pitches, and low pitches.

As shown in the examples above, many statements start with a neutral pitch. Depending on the purpose of speaking, the tone rises or falls. 

It’s actually a bit disconcerting to try and have a conversation with no pitch adjustments, and even harder if someone deliberately uses a different intonation than expected. 

Try it! This is one of the reasons EFL students often come across as uncommunicative. They might have good grammar and a variety of vocabulary, but if they haven’t developed a sense of intonation, they will lack effective communication.

Intonation can modify the meaning/purpose of what is said. Even the same sentence or word can be expressed differently by simply altering the intonation. Think of the different feeling that comes to mind when the greeting, “Hello,” is said with differing intonation:


  • To the teacher (neutral tone/pitch)
  • To a friend (rising upbeat tone/pitch)
  • To a 6 month old baby (exaggerated fall-rise tone/pitch)
  • To someone you don’t like (awkward falling tone/pitch)
  • To a friend you haven’t seen in a long time (enthusiastic rising tone/pitch)
  • To know if someone is there/listening on the phone (rising tone/pitch)

This type of activity can be practiced in class with students to help reinforce the effect intonation has on meaning. In addition, their comprehension of spoken English will improve. They will start to pick up on sarcasm, humor, and purpose in conversation.

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