#235: American Intonation Patterns + 10 Common Uses for Effective Communication

by | Mar 16, 2022 | 0 comments

Did you know that HOW you use your voice in English can hold someone’s attention, express certainty in your ideas, disagree with someone politely, indicate surprise, and more?

Just as your word choice and grammar structures are important for communication, intonation plays a critical role in your ability to communicate your message clearly and confidently. 

It helps you to be precise and convey a deeper level of meaning.

Today I’m sharing with you 4 American intonation patterns + 10 common uses for clear communication in English.

Whether you’re leading a discussion, participating in a meeting, or presenting in English or enjoying a conversation with friends, the intonation patterns you learn today help you sound more natural in your pronunciation and express your meaning precisely.

Moreover, understanding these intonation patterns will help you to better understand English speakers and the messages they’ve conveying.

4 American Intonation Patterns + 10 Common Uses

 

In English, there are four main patterns of intonation:

Rising Intonation – such as when our voice goes up at the end of a question such as

  • Ex. Are you coming out with us for lunch?

Falling Intonation- such as when our voice goes down at the end of a statement

  • Ex. We need more resources.

Rising-Falling Intonation- such as when the emphasis on a word indicates stronger emotion and causes our voice to go up and down

  • Ex. Sure. I can help you. –

Falling-Rising Intonation- such as when some hesitation leads to our voice going down and then up

  • Ex. Well, I think so

In each of these examples, the intonation changes according to the information we want to communicate and indicates meaning.

Intonation Use #1: Rise to Continue & Hold Attention

Scenario #1: Let’s say you’re presenting your thoughts on the pros and cons of moving your marketing portfolio to another PR company. At one point, you might say:

“We must consider the risks associated with moving our portfolio to another company, and starting over with a new team, at this point in time.”

However, now it seems like your coworkers need a moment to process your statement. When I said the sentence, at which words did you think the sentence had ended? Was it difficult to keep up with my point? 

Using a rising intonation would’ve cleared any confusion and allowed you to consider my point in its entirety.

Native speakers use a slight rising intonation to signal that their sentence isn’t quite complete yet. 

We use a slight rising intonation just before a comma or when we’re listing multiple items.

Let’s revisit the same sentence. This time, listen for where the intonation rises.

“We must consider the risks associated with moving our portfolio to
another company, and starting over with a new team, at this point in time.”

By slightly rising at ‘company’ and ‘team’, you communicate to your listeners that there’s more to come after those key points and it becomes easier to guide the listeners through a point. 

This is especially useful when there are multiple points to list. Moreover, it’s especially useful when you want to keep your listeners at the edge of their seat.

Scenario #2: For instance, if you’re giving a presentation on a breakthrough solution, you might list the benefits of implementing the solution by using a rising intonation. 

You might say, “By following this plan, we will minimize costs , maintain high-quality work, remain aligned with our mission, and reap significant monetary benefits.” 

By using a rising intonation, combined with stress for emphasis, I have a stronger hold over my audience. 

Intonation Use #2: Rise for Yes/No Answers, Confirmation, and Clarification

Listen carefully to the way I ask the following questions:

  • Do you want to review the details again? (Yes/No)
  • Can you meet on Monday? (Yes/No)
  • We’re meeting on Monday, right? (Confirmation)
  • You’ll have that final draft finished this afternoon, won’t you? (Confirmation)
  • What time do you want to meet? (Clarification/Confirmation)
  • Could you say that again? (Clarification)

You may have noticed that my voice went up at the end of each question.

When we ask questions for a quick yes/no answer, need to confirm details, or want to clarify we use a steep rise at the beginning of the last word.  

As English speakers, we use a steep rising intonation to signal that we’re asking a question AND expecting an answer. This is the perfect intonation to use when you need to clarify or ask for more information.

Scenario #3: Imagine you’re in the middle of a meeting and you missed part of the reasoning behind a proposed budget cut. In that moment, you might ask:


“Would you mind repeating the
                 

benefits again?”

The rise at ‘again’ is steep and ensures the listener registers that a question has been asked by you.

Intonation Use #3:  Rise to Express Strong Emotions

When we want to express strong, positive emotions such as extreme happiness, surprise, or even enthusiasm through our intonation we use rising intonation. 

Scenario #4: For example, imagine you’re sharing news about the success of a new program that was recently launched. To express your happiness and enthusiasm, you might say:


“We’ve received hundreds of requests from clients who would like to join the
       
program. This is our most successful
               
program ever!” 

When combined with emphasis, the rising intonation clearly expresses a strong, positive emotion. Mastering this intonation use would enable you to take command of the emotions in your listeners. That is to say, if you want them to feel energized or happy, you can do that through modeling the same via your intonation.

Intonation Use #4: Fall For Finality/Closure

You know those moments when you’re done speaking but… you’re not really sure how to indicate that to your listener. So, after an awkward silence you say, “I’m done” or “that’s all.”

This is a common struggle I help my Fluency School students overcome and you can too by simply using intonation, specifically falling intonation. 

Native speakers use a falling intonation to signal the completion of a thought. So, you will often hear us using this intonation at the end of a statement.

Scenario #5: Imagine you’re informing your teammates that a number of clients were contacted on a certain day and you say, “Rogers, Trader Joe’s, and Heinnman were emailed yesterday.”

Do you hear how the falling intonation gradually deepens throughout the final word in the sentence? When ending a statement, we often apply the falling intonation to the final word.

By using a falling intonation at the end of the sentence, you clearly indicate that you have nothing more to add to the sentence. 

Using this intonation is especially helpful when answering questions from others or when ending a topic of discussion.


Scenario #6: For example, if you have shared you’ve shared all you know about an ongoing project and have nothing more to add, you could use the falling intonation to say, “That’s all I know at the moment.”


The falling intonation cues the finality of that discussion.   

Most importantly, recognizing that a falling intonation was used to indicate the end of a thought will allow you to determine whether it’s an appropriate time to politely interject with a question or share your own thoughts.

The general rule of thumb is to wait a couple seconds to ensure the speaker has truly shared everything they hoped to share.

Intonation Use #5: Fall to Express Certainty or Authority

While the falling intonation certainly cues the end of a train of thought and is useful when concluding a discussion, it’s equally impactful when expressing certainty or authority. 

There are moments when displaying the utmost confidence and certainty to the listener is crucial. To express your opinion with absolute certainty, or authority, you would use the falling intonation.

Scenario #7: For instance, imagine you and your teammates must make an important final decision about the discontinuation of a project. In effort to persuade the others and demonstrate absolute certainty, you would use the falling intonation to say:

“In my opinion, we should definitely continue the project. We’ve already invested quite a bit of time and resources.”

The falling intonation not only indicates finality, but it also tells the listener that you believe in every single word that you’ve uttered. You are certain that this is the right decision. 

To powerfully express opinions, exercise authority, or simply demonstrate certainty, we use a falling intonation.  

Intonation Use #6: Fall to Get Information

With rising intonation, we highlighted questions that seek a yes/no answer, a confirmation or clarification but when we’re seeking information, we use falling intonation.

Listen to these questions: 

  • How do you think we should respond to this proposal?
  • When do you need the final draft?
  • What time do you want to meet?

Do you recognize that last question: what time are we meeting? 

I used the same question in Pattern 2 with rising intonation. So, what’s the difference? 

With falling intonation, I’m asking for information. It’s the first time we’re talking about meeting time.

However, if I forget what time we planned to meet, I will seek clarification with rising intonation. In other words, I know we’ve already talked about this but I need a reminder or clarification.

Here are a few more examples of questions for getting information and that get the conversation going: 

  • How did you get into your profession? ➘
  • How long have you been a software engineer?➘
  • What do you do when you need to de-stress?➘

Intonation Use #7: Rise-Fall to Draw Attention or Emphasize

We heard this in the example: “Sure! I’d love to help you.”

This waving intonation pattern is especially useful for when we want to draw attention to a particular detail or emphasize.

Scenario #8: For instance, if you’re summarizing or paraphrasing the points made by another colleague on changes that must be made to a draft, you might say:

       
“So, you’re saying, we should
eliminate the descriptions of each
 
legacy service and focus on
                       
describing the newer ones.”

When drawing attention to particular details, we use a rising-falling pattern on keywords to emphasize them. Not only does this help break any monotony, but it alerts the listener to any details that should be noted.

Intonation Use #8: Fall-Rise to Indicate Hesitation, Uncertainty, Doubt

Another example of waving intonation starts with a fall and then rises as in the example, “Well, I think so.”

Pattern 5 showed how falling intonation indicates confidence and authority, for example, if you want to indicate that you feel 100% certain of your opinion. We use the example:

“In my opinion, we should definitely continue the project. We’ve already invested quite a bit of time and resources.” 

But what if you’re not so sure? What if part of you thinks it’s the right thing to do but you have some doubt?

In that case, we would use falling-rising intonation. Listen to this example:

  • “In my opinion, I think we should continue this project➘➚? We’ve already invested quite a bit of time and resources➘➚.

Do you hear that doubt? A simple change in our intonation transforms how others will interpret our level of certainty when we share our opinions or ideas.

That said, we could also use this fall-rise for dramatic effect or to guide an audience through a problem and solution in a rhetorical question:

Scenario #9: Imagine your presentation involves current financial predictions and a proposal for the upcoming year. You may ask a rhetorical question to preface your proposal by saying:

“Experts predict that sales may be down next year. Does that
                             ➘➚
prediction apply to us? I don’t believe it does.”

By not using a steep rising intonation and creating a wavy intonation, not only do we draw attention to the keyword ‘us’, but we also minimize any expectations of an answer from the audience.

Rhetorical questions are a great way to add intrigue and variety to your speech. Moreover, when combined with the rising-falling intonation, it becomes more impactful.

Intonation Use #9: Rise & Fall When Offering a Choice

We’ve highlighted several examples of questions that generally rise at the end (Can you meet Monday?) or fall at the end (What time would you like to meet)?

But when we’re offering a choice, you’ll hear both are used. 

  • Would you like to meet Monday or Tuesday?
  • Which color palette do you prefer for this marketing campaign? The shades of green or the blue? 

Intonation Use #10: Rise & Fall to Politely Disagree

Lastly, we use a rising-falling intonation to respectfully and politely disagree. 

Scenario #10: Imagine you’re the person presenting a pitch. You might start with the current understanding and introduce an opposing sentiment by saying:

“Although a version of the product currently exists on the market, we strongly believe that this new version would be a sensation.”


You state the current belief with a rising intonation and share your disagreement by introducing your opinion with a falling intonation. 

When we choose to politely disagree, we combine strategies 1 & 4. We indicate there’s more to say and express an opinion with certainty. 

Even if you were to be more direct, you would use the rising-falling intonation. 

Scenario #11: Perhaps, you don’t agree with a teammate’s decision to pool resources into a particular project. You might say,

“I understand how pooling all our resources would accelerate the project, but I believe this approach could be extremely risky.”

In this case, the rising intonation also applies to ‘but’ to cue that the speaker will share an opposing thought.

And, there you have it! 10 American Intonation Patterns you can use to clearly communicate your meaning, feelings, and attitude when speaking English.

Thank you for joining me for today’s Confident English lesson on intonation. 

Be sure to share your aha moments, questions, and comments below.

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