When we speak American English our pitch goes up and down in a certain pattern. The overall up and down pitches we use create the American English “melody” or “song” and is referred to as “intonation.” In this section we will review each of the parts that make up the area of intonation.
There are several different sentence patterns in English: statements, yes/no questions, “WH” questions, and exclamations (commands). For each sentence type there is a specific intonation pattern. In this section you will learn and practice each type.
1. Intonation pattern for statements Every statement in American English should end with a downward pitch. To help visualize this, imagine a slide in your mind. Now think about how that slide curves downward from the top to the bottom. When we speak, we begin our downward slide after we stress the syllable in the last important word of the statement. Please keep in mind that the last important word is not always the last word of the statement.
Let’s look at an example “Yesterday I bought a puppy.” Because “puppy” is the last key word of the statement, we stress the syllable “pup” by raising our pitch and saying it a little slower. Picture this syllable sitting on the top of the slide. When we say the second syllable “py”, our pitch gradually goes down to end the statement, similar to going to the bottom of the slide.
Here’s another example I don’t know what you’re talking about. The word “talking” is the last key word of the sentence, with the natural stress placed on the first syllable. The pitch for “talk” is raised, followed by a gradually lower pitch for “ing” and “about” until the end of the sentence is reached. This is similar, again, to reaching the bottom of the slide.
One more example I don’t want a cookie. The word “want” is the last important word of the sentence and is a one-syllable word. When we say this word, we raise our pitch and say it slower so that it is emphasized. The other two words “a cookie” are said using a gradual downward pitch. Think of going down the slide to imagine how your pitch glides down.
It’s time to practice! Repeat the following statements using a downward pitch beginning after the stressed syllable in the last key word. The last important word in each sentence is in bold print. 1. John and Mary enjoy going to the movies. 2. Andy got a new bike for his birthday. 3. She went to the city last month. 4. Andy always eats cookies. 5. The cat ran after the mouse. 6. I like listening to music. 7. Every morning I jog to work. 8. I don’t want to go shopping today. 9. I’d like another drink. 10. I enjoy playing basketball.
2. Intonation pattern for “Wh” questions “WH” questions are questions that begin with the question words “what”, “which”, “when”, “where”, and “why”. We also include “how” questions with this group. They usually follow the same intonation pattern as statements. This means that a “WH” question will usually end with a downward pitch. Remember to imagine the downward slope of the slide again as a reminder of the appropriate downward pitch beginning on the stressed syllable of the last key word of the question.
Listen to the following examples: What are you doing? The word “doing” is the last important word of the question, and the first syllable “do” is stressed. This means that you will raise your pitch and say it a little bit slower. Begin lowering your pitch as you say “ing” to end the question, remembering the downward slide. So, it sounds like this: “What are you doing?”
Why did you do that? This time, the word “do” is the last important word of the question. It is a one-syllable word, so you will need to raise your pitch on the vowel “oo”. Begin your downward slide to the end of the sentence when you say the word “that”. So, it sounds like this: “Why did you do that?”
Practice the following “WH” questions using the downward slide on the last key word at the end. The last key word in each question is in bold print. 1. What’s your name? 2. Why are you here? 3. Where do you live? 4. When did you see him? 5. What’s that for? 6. How did you get in here? 7. What’s the matter? 8. How are you feeling today? 9. When did you get home? 10. How did you know that?
3. Intonation pattern for “yes/no” questions: Yes/no questions have this name because the answer should be “yes” or “no.” They end with a rising pitch. Picture the slide in your mind again, only this time picture the slide going from the bottom up. This means that you will begin the question with a lower pitch, similar to the bottom of the slide. Gradually raise your pitch until you reach the end of the question, similar to reaching the top of the slide.
Listen to the following examples: Do you want to come with me? Are you coming home now?
Practice the following yes/no questions using a gradual rise in pitch: 1. Do you know that man? 2. Didn’t you see that cat? 3. Can I come with you? 4. Do you like that? 5. Are you walking to the bus this morning? 6. Did you mean that? 7. Are you serious? 8. Can’t you tell I’m kidding? 9. Can you tell jokes? 10. Could you be quiet, please?
4. Intonation for exclamations Exclamations are statements used to express emotion, urgency, or importance. They follow the intonation pattern of a statement. This means that they end with a downward pitch. Exclamations are often spoken using a loud voice, emphasizing the last word or main verb, and can be strong commands.
Practice the following exclamations using emotion: 1. Come here now! 2. Don’t do that! 3. Watch out! 4. Be careful! 5. I said don’t do that! 6. Take your jacket! 7. How could you do that! 8. Sit down! 9. I don’t like that! 10. Get away from me!