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Intonation is a feature of pronunciation and is common to all languages. Other features of pronunciation include stress, rhythm, connected speech and accent. As with these other features, intonation is about how we say something rather than what we say. At its simplest, intonation could be described as ‘the music of speech’. A change or variation in this music or pitch can affect the meaning of what we say. We can therefore think of intonation as referring to the way we use the pitch of our voice to express particular meanings and attitudes.

In many spoken languages around the world – but especially in British English – it is easy for the listener to understand the speaker’s attitude: boredom, interest, surprise, anger, appreciation, happiness, and so on, are often evident in their intonation. There are some intonation patterns in English, which, for the most part, correspond to the use of particular grammar structures.

Intonation is particularly important in expressing questions in spoken English. The most common example is in the use of wh-questions (questions beginning with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘which’, and ‘how’), which usually have a falling intonation. Questions that require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, however, usually have upward intonation. We can therefore think of intonation as referring to the way we use the pitch of our voice to express particular meanings and attitudes.

The three main patterns of intonation in English are falling intonation, rising intonation and fall-rise intonation.

Falling Intonation

Falling intonation describes how the voice falls on the final stressed syllable of a phrase or a group of words. Falling intonation is very common in wh-questions.

    • Where’s the nearest p↘ost-office?
    • What time does the film f↘inish?

We also use falling intonation when we say something definite, or when we want to be very clear about something:

    • I think we are completely l↘ost.
    • OK, here’s the magaz↘ine you wanted.

Rising Intonation

Rising intonation describes how the voice rises at the end of a sentence. Rising intonation is common in yes-no questions.

    • I hear the health centre is expanding. So, is that the new d↗octor?

Fall-Rise Intonation

Fall-rise intonation describes how the voice falls and then rises. We use fall-rise intonation at the end of statements when we want to say that we are not sure, or when we may have more to add.

    • I do↘n’t support any football team at the m↘om↗ent. (but I may change my mind in future).
    • It rained every day in the firs↘t w↗eek. (but things improved after that).

We use fall-rise intonation with questions, especially when we request information or invite somebody to do or to have something. The intonation pattern makes the questions sound more polite.

    • Is this your cam↘er↗a?
    • Would you like another co↘ff↗ee?
    • Are you th↗irsty?
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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.