Intonation Phrases in Phonetics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In phonetics, an intonation phrase is a stretch (or chunk) of spoken material that has its own intonation pattern (or tune). Also called an intonation group, phonological phrase, tone unit, or tone group.

The intonation phrase (IP) is the basic unit of intonation. In a phonetic analysis, the vertical bar symbol (|) is used to represent the boundary between two intonation phrases.

Examples and Observations

"When speakers produce words in a row, we can usually observe that they are structured: individual words are grouped together to form an intonation phrase... Intonation phrases can coincide with breath groups..., but they do not have to. Often a breath group contains more than one intonation phrase. As with all other phonological units, it is assumed that speakers have a mental representation of intonation phrases, i.e. they know how to produce speech structured into intonation phrases and they rely on this knowledge when listening to the speech of others.

"Within an intonation phrase, there is typically one word that is most prominent... Some utterances might contain just one intonation phrase, others might contain several of them. Moreover, speakers can put utterances together to form larger stretches of speech or discourse...

"Intonational phrasing in English can have a meaning-distinguishing function. Consider utterances 11a and 11b:

(11a) He washed and fed the dog.
(11b) He washed | and fed the dog.

If the intonation phrase 'He washed and fed the dog' is produced as one intonation phrase, its meaning is that a person both washed and fed a dog. Conversely, if the same utterance is produced as a sequence of two intonation phrases with an intonation boundary after washed (indicated by the symbol |), the meaning of the utterance changes into 'someone who washed himself and fed a dog.'"

(Ulrike Gut, Introduction to English Phonetics and Phonology. Peter Lang, 2009)

Intonation Contours

  • "Intonation often does serve to convey information of a broadly meaningful nature . . .. For example, the falling pitch we hear at the end of a statement in English such as Fred parked the car signals that the utterance is complete. For this reason, falling intonation at the end of an utterance is called a terminal (intonation) contour. Conversely, a rising or level intonation, called a nonterminal (intonation) contour, often signals incompleteness. Nonterminal contours are often heard in the nonfinal forms found in lists and telephone numbers." (William O'Grady et al., Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction, 4th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001)

Tonality (Chunking)

"The speaker does not necessarily have to follow the rule of an IP for each clause. There are many cases where different kinds of chunking are possible. For example, if a speaker wants to say We don't know who she is, it is possible to say the whole utterance as a single IP (= one intonation pattern):

We don't know who she is.

But it is also possible to divide the material up, in at least the following possible ways:

We don't know | who she is.
We | don't know who she is.
We don't | know who she is.
We | don't know | who she is.

Thus the speaker may present the material as two, or three, pieces of information rather than a single piece. This is tonality (or chunking)."

(J. C. Wells, English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

The Position of Intonation Phrase Boundaries

  • "The position of intonation phrase boundaries shows a good amount of variability. These have been studied in English on the basis of positions of possible pauses within clauses (Selkirk 1984b, Taglicht 1998 and references there) and positions of obligatory pauses (Downing 1970). . . . The core result is that root clauses, and only these, are bounded by obligatory intonation phrase breaks. (Root clauses are clauses [CPs] not imbedded inside of a higher clause that has a subject and a predicate.)" (Hubert Truckenbrodt, "The Syntax-Phonology Interface." The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology, ed. by Paul de Lacy. Cambridge University Press, 2007)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Intonation Phrases in Phonetics." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Intonation Phrases in Phonetics. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Intonation Phrases in Phonetics." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).