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Intonation in English

This blog post is based on the game "Actors Challenge" on Lingo Boingo. To play, click here.

What is Intonation?

Intonation is the way speech rises and falls. It is important for adding emphasis or emotion in conversation. Changing your intonation can drastically change the meaning of an utterance. Let's explore some examples below, first focusing on the emphasis of certain words within a sentence.

I like to act in plays

This sentence is placing the emphasis on I, as opposed to somebody else. Perhaps you use this intonation if somebody asks you if your friend likes to act in plays, but they don't- you do!

I like to act in plays

This sentence is placing the emphasis on like, highlighting your feelings about acting in plays. Perhaps somebody has assumed that you hate acting in plays, and you correct them by saying this.

I like to act in plays

This sentence places emphasis on act, and could mean that you don't like to watch or write plays, but prefer to act in them.

I like to act in plays

This sentence emphasizes plays, and could mean that you don't like to act in TV or movies, but prefer plays.

It's interesting how the meaning of the same sentence can differ based on intonation and emphasis alone!

Now, let's talk about how intonation can convey different attitudes depending on the tone and volume of your voice. Take the word "Oh". Just reading it doesn't give much away, but upon hearing someone say it, there can be many different interpretations, such as surprise, anger, disappointment, or suspicion, to name a few.

Intonation Patterns

There are four main ways we use intonation while speaking. They are: rising intonation (voice goes up), falling intonation (voice goes down), fall-rise intonation (voice falls and then rises), and rise-fall intonation (voice rises and then falls). When do we use these types of intonation?

Falling intonation is very commonly used when we are making statements, commands, and asking questions in which we want an answer. Listen to the video below to hear examples.

Rising intonation is used when asking questions where the answer is yes or no and in questions within a given context where the answer is unclear or confirmation is needed. Listen to the video below to hear examples.

Fall-rise intonation is used when the sentence is not yet complete and another contrasting point will be said. Listen to the video below for an example.

Rise-fall intonation is used when listing items or making a statement that has two alternatives. Listen to the video below for examples.

We can use both fall-rise and rise-fall intonation on separate words or parts of the sentence; even on the same word!

Additionally, people can have unique ways of intonation and the categories listed above are not strict rules; they are patterns that many English speakers tend to follow. Intonation is a key part of speech and is something that many native English speakers do without thinking, but can be difficult for those learning English, especially if their native language has different intonation patterns.


To test your skills about understanding intonation, play "Actors Challenge" today! Additionally, check out Lingo Boingo's other language games and help contribute to linguistic research. Find Lingo Boingo on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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