Intonation Definition and Examples in Speech

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In speechintonation is the use of changing vocal pitch (rising and falling) to convey grammatical information or personal attitude.

Intonation is particularly important in expressing questions in spoken English.

In The Intonation Systems of English (2015), Paul Tench observes that "in the last two decades, linguists have been turning to intonation in a much more systematic fashion as a result of discourse studies, and as a result, much more is now known."

Examples and Observations

  • "Intonation is . . . important: if the word 'right' is said with the pitch of the voice rising, it is likely to be heard as a question or as an invitation to a speaker to continue, while falling pitch is more likely to be heard as confirmation or agreement."
    (Peter Roach, English Phonetics and Phonology: A Practical Course, 4th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  • "She had stopped crying and was kneading my back with her hands. 

    "'I mean, what the hell? Right?'

    "'Yes. Right.'

    "'I mean, why keep waiting? Right?'

    "'Right,' she said."
    (Russell Banks, "Adultery." Mother Jones, April/May, 1986)
  • "[W]e may make two very general observations about the basic meanings of tones: one, that a falling pitch is associated with certainty--specifically, certainty about polarity—and a rising pitch with uncertainty; two, that a lower pitch expresses a meaning that is intensified, implying some additional commitment on the part of the speaker."
    (Michael Halliday in A Course in Spoken English: Intonation, ed. by R. Mackin et al. Oxford University Press, 1970)

    The Melody of a Language

    "Intonation is the melody or music of a language. It refers to the way the voice rises and falls as we speak. How might we tell someone that it's raining?

    It's raining, isn't it? (or 'innit,' perhaps)

    We're telling the person, so we give our speech a 'telling' melody. The pitch-level of our voice falls and we sound as if we know what we're talking about.

    We're making a statement. But now imagine we don't know if it's raining or not. We think it might be, so we're asking someone to check. We can use the same words--but note the question-mark, this time:

    It's raining, isn't it?

    Now we're asking the person, so we give our speech an 'asking' melody. The pitch-level of our voice rises and we sound as if we're asking a question." (David Crystal, A Little Book of Language. Yale University Press, 2010)

    Speech Cues

    "In many languages, including English, intonation can show which parts of utterances are regarded as being background, given, common-ground material, and which parts carry the information focus. Given material in a clause typically has some kind of rising intonation contour, indicating incompleteness—there is something still to come—while the new information that is added is more likely to carry a falling contour, indicating completion. This helps to make speech less dependent than writing on ordering." (Michael Swan, Grammar. Oxford University Press, 2005)

    Intonational Meanings

    "[T]he intonation system of English constitutes the most important and complex part of English prosody. By combining different pitch levels (= unchanging pitch heights) and contours (= sequences of levels, changing pitch shapes) we express a range of intonational meanings: breaking the utterance into chunks, perhaps distinguishing between clause types (such as statement vs. question), focusing on some parts of the utterance and not on others, indicating which part of our message is background information and which is foregrounded, signalling our attitude to what we are saying.

    "Some of this intonational meaning is shown in writing, through the use of punctuation, but most of it is not. This is why spoken English, as spoken by native speakers, is richer in information content than written English." (John C. Wells, English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

    Pronunciation: in-teh-NAY-shun