In this lesson, we've decided to tell you all there is about 'intonation'. Have you heard anything about it before? Well then, come on in.


What Is Intonation?

Intonation is the music of the language, and it goes hand in hand with stress. We could say that intonation is a combination of changing the pitch of our voice, stress, and rhythms. We should know that intonation is very important, because just using different intonations in the same word/sentence can have a different meaning.

Why Do We Use Intonation?

We should remember that we can use intonation to express different emotions, the same word or statement or etc. can sound sarcastic, serious, dramatic, excited,… just by changing the intonation. For instance we have the word 'really' we can say it in a sarcastic way, very surprised, very hopless... just depends on how we use the intonation.


Please remember all of the following guidelines are pretty flexible, there is no must, and the intonation can change based on the situation. After all every person has their own style and these guidelines are just for you to be understood better.

Intonation Patterns

There are 7 possible patterns in English intonation in total, which the first 4 are the most common and useful ones:

  • Falling (➘)
  • Rising (➚)
  • Rising-falling (➚) (➘)
  • Falling-rising (➘) (➚)

The other 3 aren't common and don’t have many uses:

  • Flat
  • High
  • Low


Falling intonation is when the pitch of our voice falls at the end of a sentence. Where do we use the falling tone?

  1. In statements
  2. In open-questions
  3. In tag-questions

1. In Statements

We can use the falling tone in the statements, to show the sentence has ended. Let's see some examples:

I play games (➘).

It's sunny (➘).

He is a doctor (➘).

2. In Open-Questions

We use falling tone to ask the questions which we want an answer for (we need information) we call these questions 'Wh-Questions'. Let’s remember that the falling tone used when you have no idea what the answer is.

What are you going to do today(➘)?

How was your exam (➘)?

Where did they go for holiday(➘)?

3. In Tag-Questions

To ask these questions (confirmatory question tags) and to know whether to use falling or rising tone for these questions we need to know the context. (When the context is old we use falling tone). Let’s have an example:

Imagine two friends talking about their exams, friend 'A' and friend 'B', the backstory is that the friend 'A' has warned friend 'B' to study well because the exam will be very hard. Now the result of the exam has come out and friend 'B' has failed the exam. Then friend 'A' says: I told you to study well, didn't I (➘)?

(Friend 'A' knows she had said this, friend 'B' also knows that so this is not basically a question and it's more of a statement.)


Rising intonation is when the pitch of our voice rises at the end of the sentence. Where do we use rising tones?

  1. In closed-questions
  2. In tag-questions

1. In Closed-Questions

We use the rising tone to ask yes/no questions. (This is usually when we doubt something, want to check or confirm the answer, or already have some ideas about the answer but there are hesitations.)

Do you love your major (➚)?

Is Tim here (➚)?

Can he come (➚)?

Have you tried the pizza here (➚)?

2. In Tag-Questions

To ask these questions (confirmatory question tags) and to know whether to use falling or rising tone for these questions we need to know the context. (When the context is new or the person is unsure and need confirmation). for instance:

Imagine a classroom, the teacher comes in and ask the students for their essay. The students look at each other and say that the teacher has never said anything about this essay before. So the teacher gets confused (did I really forgot to tell them?) and ask the students for confirmation: I told you to prepare the essay, didn’t I (➚)?

A Combination of Rise and Fall (➚➘) or Fall and Rise (➘➚)

Sometimes in a sentence we have a combination of both falling and rising tones. Let's see some of the possible situations:

  1. Old and new information
  2. For choices (alternative questions)
  3. To show the sentence hasn’t ended yet
  4. Lists

1. Old and New Information:

You use a falling tone to show that the information is new. And you use a rising tone to show that the information is old.Let’s have look at the following conversation for example:

A : Did you get the books (➚)?

Both 'a' and 'b' know about the 'books'(old information) (➚)

B : I thought you (➘) are getting the books (➚).

'You' has never mentioned in this convorsation before so it's new information(➘), and 'books' as mentioned before is old information(➚).

A : How can I get the books (➚) , when I don’t know where is the bookstore (➘).

'Books' old information(➚), and here bookstore is new information,nobody mentioend it (➘) .

2. For choices

We use a rising-falling tone when we want someone to make a choice (alternative questions), first options with rising tone and the last one with falling tone.

Should I wear my red dress (➚) or the black one (➘)?

Do you want this notebook (➚) or that book (➘)?

3. To Show the Sentence hasn’t Ended yet

(We will use the same example as the ones in falling tones so you understand)

I play games (➚), but I don’t have any friends (➘).

It’s sunny (➚), even though it’s raining (➘).

He is a doctor (➚), and he is very good at his job (➘).

4. Lists

For lists we use rising tone for whatever items we want to have and then for the last item we will use the falling tone to show that it’s the last one and the list has finished.

I want to buy tomatoes (➚), apples (➚), pineapples (➚), and books (➘).

Please buy milk (➚), eggs (➚), cherry tomatoes (➚), juice (➚), cheese (➚) and butter (➘).

Here are some more guidelines for you:

  • Hesitation/Reluctance:

A : So you'd be willing to confirm that?

B : Well ... I ➘sup➚pose so ...

A : You didn't see him on Monday?

B : I don't quite ➘re➚member ...

  • Politeness-Doubt-Uncertainty (You are not sure what the answer might be):

Perhaps we could ➘vis➚it the place?

Should we ➘cop➚y the list?

Do you think it's ➘al➚lowed?

  • You can use questions to make a comment, We will use a falling tone for these.

Isn’t it great(➘)?

Wasn’t it beautiful(➘)?

Isn’t it horrible(➘)?

  • We can use questions to criticize someone or disagree, we use a rising tone for these.

Are you insane (➚)?

Have you gone mad (➚)?

  • You can use questions to make a suggestion, we can use both rising and falling tones depend on how serious are we.

Why don't we get something to eat?

Should we just get back home?


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