Mastering Intonation in English

Intonation gives life to the words we say. Mastering intonation is essential for effective communication in English because intonation enables us to express our feelings, thoughts, and intentions beyond the words that we speak. In this comprehensive guide to English intonation, we will cover what intonation is, why it matters, and share tips on how you can utilize different intonation patterns to improve your communication skills.
October 29, 2023
Eliza Simpson
Eliza Simpson
Speech & Accent Coach at BoldVoice
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Intonation is a crucial part of communicating effectively in English. It impacts the tone and rhythm of English speech, and it's what natives speakers use to convey their intentions and emotions. In this comprehensive guide, we will cover what intonation means, why it matters, and the various intonation patterns that you can use to achieve more advanced fluency. We will also explore different ways to make intonation changes in your speech, so you can express yourself clearly in English.

What is Intonation?


Think of your voice as a musical instrument. Intonation is the rise and fall of pitch (how high or low your voice sounds) within a sentence. It plays an important role in conveying meaning, emotion, and emphasis.

Within this broader concept of intonation, you'll find inflection. Inflection is the specific change in pitch or tone (i.e. the emotional quality of your voice) within a word or phrase. It's like adding colorful highlights to your speech. When you use word stress, you're using inflection to make a particular word stand out, giving it more meaning or emotional depth.

So, while intonation shapes the overall musicality of your speech, inflection adds expressive nuances to certain words or smaller segments of a sentence.

Let's start by covering the four main patterns of American intonation: falling intonation, rising intonation, falling-rising intonation, and rising-falling intonation.

Falling Intonation

Falling intonation involves a gradual drop in pitch at the end of a sentence or phrase. This is a common intonation pattern that is typically used in declarative statements to express finality or certainty.

Here are some examples:

The meeting is at 2 p.m. ↘
I am going to the store. ↘
She is coming to the party. ↘

For tips on how to modify word stress when making statements in American English, check out this video excerpt featuring BoldVoice Coach Eliza Simpson.

Rising Intonation

On the other hand, rising intonation is characterized by a higher pitch that goes up, usually after asking a question.

Here are a few examples:

Are you coming? ↗
Are you going to the store? ↗
Are we meeting at the usual place? ↗

Take a look at how Coach Eliza uses rising intonation in questions:

Rising-Falling Intonation

Rising-falling intonation begins with a rise in pitch at the beginning and then falls at the end. It is often used to express surprise, disbelief, or a need for confirmation.

Here are some examples:

How much ↗ do you want? ↘
You liked the movie, didn’t ↗ you? ↘
I can’t believe↗ he did that to you. ↘

This intonation pattern can also be useful when making comparisons:

Falling-Rising Intonation

Falling-rising intonation starts with a fall in pitch at the beginning and then rises at the end, which creates a sense of intrigue, disbelief, or curiosity. It typically indicates incomplete thoughts or open-ended questions.

Try out these examples. Notice the higher pitch at the end of the word or sentence.

Are you going ↘ to the party too? ↗
You found my phone wh↘ere? ↗
What are your plans  for the ↘ next year? ↗

For more information on how variations in pitch can help you make these different types of intonation changes, check out BoldVoice Coach Adeola's demonstration:

Why Does Intonation Matter?

Intonation and Stress

Intonation in the English language places emphasis on different parts of a sentence, which in turn changes the meaning of the sentence. For instance, "I didn't say she bought the car" can have seven different meanings based on the word that is stressed.

1. “I didn’t say she bought the car.”

Emphasis on the word “I” indicates someone other than the speaker said it.

2. “I didn’t say she bought the car.”

Emphasis on the word “didn’t” indicates the speaker did not say she bought the car.

3. “I didn’t say she bought the car.”

Emphasis on the word “say” indicates the speaker did not directly say that she bought the car, but may have implied she bought the car in another way.

4. “I didn’t say she bought the car.”

Emphasis on the word “she” indicates that someone else bought the car.

5. “I didn’t say she bought the car."

Emphasis on the word “bought” indicates she might have stolen, borrowed, or rented the car, without buying it outright.

6. “I didn’t say bought the car.”

Emphasis on the word “the” indicates the speaker might have implied she bought a car, but not the car that is being discussed in the conversation.

7. “I didn’t say she bought the car.

Emphasis on the word “car” indicates the speaker is implying that she bought something else, not the car.

Stressing different words can lead to misunderstandings even when the correct words and grammar are used. To avoid miscommunication, it's important to know when and how to use stress in your intonation to accurately emphasize different parts of a sentence.

Check out this short clip from the TV series Friends:

Notice how emphasizing different parts of the phrase “got the keys” can lead to several different meanings.

When to Use Intonation

Asking Yes/No Questions

Rising intonation is most commonly used for yes/no questions to indicate uncertainty at the end of the inquiry, like in these sentences.

Did you enjoy the party? ↗
Do you need any help? ↗

Creating Lists

When listing items, use rising intonation at the end of each item, with falling intonation at the end of the list to show completion. Check out how this intonation pattern is used in the below examples.

I need eggs,↘ milk, ↘ and bread. ↗
Our tasks for today include writing, ↘ editing, ↘ and proofreading. ↗

Communicating Emotions

Intonation allows you to convey a wide range of emotions effectively, depending on the intonation pattern that you use. For instance, a rising-falling intonation pattern expresses excitement or surprise: "You did what?!" On the other hand, a falling-rising intonation usually expresses disappointment or disdain: “Mhm, I don’t like that.”

Review these other examples.

I'm so excited ↗ about the weekend! ↘
I can't believe ↘  I missed the bus. ↗

Showcasing Importance

You can use rising-falling intonation to draw attention to a specific part of your sentence, emphasizing its importance. Here are a few other examples.

It's not just any book; ↗ it's a masterpiece. ↘
She's not merely a teacher; ↗ she's an inspiration. ↘

Making Comparisons

When comparing two or more items, use rising-falling intonation to create a balanced, comparative effect, such as in these two representative examples.

Apples  ↗ are healthier  than ↘  candy.
Blue and green ↗ are better colors than ↘ gray and white.

Getting Confirmation

Tag questions are short questions added at the end of a statement. Think of the sentence "You like the beach, isn't that right?" The question "isn't that right" is considered the tag question. In general, these are used to either confirm information, seek agreement, or to engage the listener in a conversation. They also utilize rising-falling intonation.

Try saying these examples out loud to yourself.

You're coming to the party, ↗ right? ↘
This is delicious, ↗ isn't it? ↘
You like pizza, ↗ don’t you? ↘

In this clip from The Office, Jim uses a rising-falling intonation to ask Kelly a confirmation question.

Making Exclamations

Saying enthusiastic exclamations often involves rising intonation, like in these examples.

Wow, that's amazing! ↗
I can't believe it! ↗

In this clip from How I Met Your Mother, Ted uses rising intonation to express his excitement about potentially acing his final exam.

Making Demands

Use falling intonation to make commanding, assertive statements, like in these two examples.

Close the door. ↘
Pass me the salt. ↘

Showing Uncertainty

A rising intonation at the end of a sentence conveys uncertainty. Take a look at the below examples to see how this pattern can be applied.

Could you maybe help me with this? ↗
I think it's his birthday tomorrow? ↗

Expressing Unfinished Thoughts

Rising intonation is often used to suggest an incomplete idea. Here are a few examples.

Maybe we can look into it … ↗
I’m not sure about that actually …  ↗

Expressing Politeness

A rising intonation pattern can be used to make requests more politely, like in these sentences.

Could you please pass me the menu? ↗
May I have a moment of your time? ↗

How to Practice Intonation

Record Yourself

One of the most effective ways to improve your intonation is to record your speech and carefully analyze your patterns. Listening to your own voice can reveal areas where you need to enhance your intonation. Pay attention to moments where you sound monotonous or uncertain. By identifying these areas, you can work on refining your intonation to create a more engaging and expressive conversational style.

Shadow Read a Script

Watch a scene from your favorite film and then read the script aloud, while mimicking the intonation of the native English speakers in those roles. You can check out resources like the Internet Movie Script Database to find the right script. While you speak your part, try to internalize the main intonation patterns, which will make it easier to incorporate them into your daily life.

Go to Karaoke

English songs are not only a source of joy and entertainment but also a fantastic tool to enhance your intonation. When you sing along to your favorite tunes, you're essentially practicing pitch variations and emotions in a musical context. So organize your friends and go to karaoke! Try to sharpen your ability to match the melody and emotional quality of the song, which, in turn, will help you infuse your spoken words with richer intonation.

Say Different Sentences with Different Emotions

Practice saying sentences with various emotions. Experiment with different intonation patterns to convey feelings like excitement, sadness, or surprise. By modulating your pitch and intonation in alignment with the emotion you wish to express, you'll become a more engaging and expressive communicator. This exercise not only refines your intonation skills but also enriches your ability to connect with others on a deeper level.

Find a Conversation Partner

Ask a friend or colleague who is a native English speaker to practice conversations with you in English. Pay attention to how they speak about everyday life activities using intonation and practice incorporating intonation into your sentences. Another great available resource is BoldVoice's AI Chat feature, where you can have full real-world conversations with a ChatGPT-powered avatar. Get instant feedback on your speech and personalized goals to improve your English communication.

Listen to Intonation Around You

The best way to learn intonation patterns is to pay close attention to how native speakers use intonation to convey meaning. Listen to how people use intonation in the media, immerse yourself in English-speaking environments and conversations, and practice imitating the patterns you hear to improve your communication skills. The more you listen and practice, the more your intonation will become second nature, allowing you to communicate more effectively and sound like a native English speaker

Final Thoughts

Knowing when and how to utilize various intonation patterns is crucial for effective communication in the English language. Improving your speaking skills not only makes you a better communicator, but it also leads to increased confidence in both social and professional settings. This is especially pertinent for immigrant professionals in the United States, as clear and confident communication is often a key factor for career advancement.

If you’re looking to take the next step on your journey to refine your English intonation skills, BoldVoice can help. Our app provides personalized guidance and practice opportunities to help you master various intonation patterns with ease. Start practicing English intonation alongside native-speaker coaches who can help you add depth and nuance to your speech and make your communication more engaging, impactful, and powerful.

You can try BoldVoice with a free 7-day trial to get started on your accent journey!
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Eliza Simpson
Eliza Simpson
Speech & Accent Coach at BoldVoice
About the author
Eliza Simpson is a Hollywood speech and accent coach based in New York City. She holds a Degree in Acting from Rutgers University and has trained at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London. As a speech and dialect coach, Eliza has worked in film and TV for productions appearing on Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV+. Eliza is a head coach on the BoldVoice app.
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