Unit outline

Unit objectives                              


Definition and components of intonation


The tone unit as a basic unit of intonation


Tone-patterns in English


Functions of intonation                   


Intonation and sentence types       


Imperatives and exclamations            



Contrastive analysis of intonation in English and Romanian                     


Key concepts                                                                                

Further reading                                                                           

Answers to SAQs

    After you have completed the study of this unit you should be able to:

avoid transferring intonation patterns by realizing that the shapes of the English tunes differ from the normal tunes of Romanian.
practise English intonation patterns that occur with a variety of sentence types.
distinguish between isolated sentences, which generally can take several intonation contours, and the intonation* of ongoing discourse, in which case only one intonation contour is generally appropriate.
apply English intonation patterns over short exchanges and longer stretches of discourse that resemble authentic conversation.

6.1   Definition and components of intonation

Intonation* is a term used in the study of suprasegmental phonology. In a narrow sense, intonation refers to the fluctuations in pitch level (i.e. the height on which sounds are pronounced) and pitch direction (i.e. the point towards which the movement in pitch takes place). In a wider sense, intonation includes other prosodic* elements such as loudness*, tempo of speech, rhythm. The most important of all components of intonation is pitch.
Pitch is also a component of accent.  Pitch consists of pronouncing a syllable on a higher pitch level than the others, or in giving that syllable a certain melodic shape: a falling one, a rising one, or a combination of the two. In acoustic terms it means the number of vibrations per second of the vocal cords*. Pitch contrasts are more easily perceived with voiced sounds.

Think first!

    To give you an idea of how difficult intonation may be to master for nonnative speakers of English, read the following remarks about the intonation of yes/no questions produced by two native speakers of Greek, in comparison with that of two native speakers of North American English:

“The two native speakers of Greek, who were advanced level and highly fluent in English, tended to superimpose the falling Greek intonation for yes/no questions onto the English yes/no questions they uttered:

Are you COMING?

This made the Greeks seem impatient and rude to the English speakers who evaluated the questions of all four speakers. The native English speakers intonation, by contrast, tended to rise on such questions:

Are you COMING?

(From a study by Argyres, Z. J. 1996. The cross-cultural pragmatics of intonation: The case of Greek-English)

Can you recall any particular instances when you felt your intonation of yes/no questions sounded like Romanian English?

Write your answer in the space provided below.

Compare your answer with the information contained in section 6.3.

Tone languages and intonation languages
Languages where word meanings or grammatical categories (such as TENSE) are dependent on pitch level are known as tone languages. Many languages of South-East Asia (Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese), Africa (particularly those in the South and West) and a considerable number of Amerindian languages are tone languages.
In Chinese the pitch variations are carried by the syllable as a phonetic unit so that by varying the pitch of individual syllables, differences in meaning are obtained. For example, the word ma may mean 1) mother, 2) hemp, 3) horse (when pronounced in a falling-rising tone), 4) to scold.
Languages where pitch conveys meaning not at lexical item level but at the phrasal or clausal level are called intonation languages. Virtually all European and Middle Eastern languages are intonation languages.
In general, if learners speak an intonation language* as their first language, it is assumed that they will learn the intonation of another language more easily than will someone who speaks a tone language as their first language or vice versa. However, just because two languages happen to be intonation languages does not mean that their utterance-level pitch patterns will be the same. They rarely are. For, example, while English uses up to four    pitch levels, Spanish uses only two or at most three with the result that Spanish speakers seem to have a somewhat flat intonation in English which signals disinterest to English speakers. (Celce-Murcia Marianne and Elite Olshtain. 2000. Discourse and Context in Language Teaching, p. 33)

6.2   The tone-unit as the basic unit of intonation

Variations of pitch occur in chunks of speech called tone units. A tone-unit* is the phonological unit greater in size than the syllable, and it is the basic unit of intonation. In its smallest form a tone-unit may consist of only one syllable so it would in fact be wrong to say that it is always composed of more than one syllable. For example, both you and is it you may be regarded as tone units; the former is a one-syllable utterance which carries a tone* while the latter is an utterance of three syllables in which only the third one carries a tone. A syllable which carries a tone is called a tonic syllable* or nucleus*.

The conventional structure of the tone unit
Conventionally, the structure of a tone-unit/intonation pattern or tune* is made up of the following components:
a nucleus or tonic syllable (an obligatory element) - carried by the stressed syllable of the most important word in the utterance.
a pre-nuclear component part (non-obligatory) consisting of an optional head (that part of a tune starting with the first accented syllable and continuing up to the nucleus) and a pre-head* (all the unaccented syllables before a head).
a post-nuclear part (optional) - called tail which usually consists of the unstressed syllables after the nucleus.
Sometimes a tail can contain stressed words but without  pitch change as in Well, ‘say something, then!
The tone-unit structure can be summarized as follows:

    (pre-head)    (head)    nucleus    (tail)
    (Ph)    (H)    N    (T)

The following examples illustrate various structures of intonation patterns:

There's / nothing I can do / about it /
     Ph          H          N            T
It's im / po / ssible for me to do it.
   Ph      N                   T
This was more than I had expected.
    Ph         N                 T
Isn't she pretty ?
   N       T


Identify the nucleus, the head, the pre-head and the tail of this utterance. Pronounce it with the corresponding intonation pattern:

There is no need to be so upset about it.


Check your answer against the one suggested in the answer section.

The choice of the nucleus in an utterance depends on the speech situation. The shift in nucleus location is accompanied by a change in meaning.

a)Tom sells 'cars. (This is his job)
b)Tom 'sells cars. (He doesn't make or buy them)
c)'Tom sells cars. (It is Tom, not another person who sells cars).

Think first!

    Read these paired sentences paying attention to how the punctuation found in written English reflects the intonation of spoken English:

1.a. “Father”, said mother, “is late”.
      b. Father said, “Mother is late”.

2.a. Have you met my brother Fred?
      b. Have you met my brother, Fred?

You can find a clue to your answer in the following sections.

6.3   Tone patterns in English

The study of the notions of tone and intonation in English involves the introduction of the following basic tones: fall*, rise, fall-rise*, rise-fall and level.

The falling or fall pattern
A falling pitch usually called ‘a fall’* is one that goes from a higher pitch to a lower one:

This tone is usually regarded as more or less neutral. The fall* is usually associated with an impression of finality, with ending a conversation. For instance, in a dialogue between speakers A and B, one possible reply from B would be YES \ implying the question is answered and that there is nothing more to be said:

A: Do you know John Smith?

B: YES  (or YES \).


Say the words now, fine, oh, where with falls. Then give their transcription showing the falling tone.


Write your answers in the space provided. Then check your transcriptions against the suggested answers given at the end of the unit.

The rising or rise pattern
The rising tone or ‘rise’ conveys an impression that something more is to follow. If in the dialogue above B's reply were YES /, this means that B invites A to continue with what he/she intends to say about John Smith after establishing that B knows him:

A: Do you know John Smith?

B:  YES,    (or YES /).


    Say the same words, now, fine, oh, where with rises. Give their transcription showing the rising tone.
Write your answers in the space provided.


Check them against the suggested answer given at the end of this unit.

The fall-rise tone
The fall-rise tone is used a lot in English, and it usually indicates limited agreement or hesitation. In the example below, B's reply should be taken to mean that he/she would not completely agree with what A said:
A: Did you know she quitted?
B: It’s          POSSIBLE

The rise-fall tone
The rise-fall tone is used to convey rather strong feelings of approval, disapproval or surprise:

A: Do you like this?


Note that the rise part of the tone takes place on the first tonic syllable and the fall part on the second:

e.g. NO   ONE,       NO     SIR

The level tone
The level tone almost always conveys a feeling of saying something routine, uninteresting or boring. For instance, a student's answering yes when his/her name was called by the teacher uses a level tone.

A: John Smith?


    Pronounce the following utterances showing a neutral, uninterested tone:

a.I don’t mind.
b.I’ m easy.

Give their phonemic transcription in the spaces provided and then check it against the answer given at the end of the unit.

In a one-syllable utterance, the single syllable must have one of the five tones presented briefly above. In a tone unit of more than one syllable, the tonic syllable must have one of those tones. When a tonic syllable is followed by a tail, that tail continues and completes the tone begun on the tonic syllable.

6.4   Functions of intonation

In communication, intonation may perform several functions:

The accentual function
The accentual function is expressed by the accent component of intonation.
This function is closely connected to the primary accent carried by the most prominent word in an utterance.
In these sentences, the nuclear or tonic stress* falls on the last important lexical item:

    He must 'come,
    Put the book in the 'box,
    John and Mary must 'do, it.

The attitudinal function
The attitudinal function expresses the connection between tones and attitudes (e.g. joy, anger, irony, indignation, surprise, incredulity, arrogance). This function is superimposed on the accentual function and cannot be clearly separated from it.

    John 'and Mary must  do it (not only John)
    'He must come (not she)
    Put the book 'in the box (not on the box)

An attitude that is expressed could be an attitude towards the listener, towards what is being said or towards some external event or situation.
To the foreign learner of English who wants to learn "correct intonation" a few generalisations can be made:

finality or definiteness is expressed by the fall tone:

That is the end of the news.
I'm absolutely certain.
Stop talking.

encouraging is expressed by the rise tone:

It won't hurt.

-   uncertainty, doubt or request are expressed by the fall-rise:
You may be right.
Will you lend it to me.

surprise is expressed by the rise fall:

All of them

However, linking tones with attitudes remains a difficult task, especially because the same intonation pattern can accompany different attitudes depending on the nature of the utterance and the context in which it is used. For example, the rise-fall followed by a fall is used in utterance 1 to accompany exasperation and in utterance 2 to accompany delight.

(1) If you opened your EYES  you’d SEE it.

(2) I’m delighted to SAY you’ve WON it.

Actually, the rise-fall pattern is generally considered an emphatic tone which accompanies utterances that show strong feelings. 


Mark the rise-fall tone in the following sentences to express attitudes such as surprise and indignation:

a. All of them!
b. You didn’t ask me.
c. I was first.

You can find the answer at the end of this unit.

The grammatical function
The relationship between grammar and intonation takes the form of correspondences between certain grammatical structures and certain intonation patterns. In other words, certain grammatical structures have the tendency to go with certain intonation patterns.

6.5   Intonation and sentence types

From a grammatical point of view, what is relevant for intonation analysis is not the number of words in an utterance but the syntactic structures they form and the grammatical categories to which they belong.

Think first!

Read the following paired grammatical structures and note how intonation helps to distinguish between them.
Remember that the placement of the tone boundary is important.

    a The Conservatives who like the proposal are pleased.
    b The Conservatives, who like the proposal, are pleased.

Check your answer against the explanation below.

The intonational pattern used should make clear the difference between (a) restrictive and (b) non-restrictive relative clauses; (a) implies that only some Conservatives like the proposal, while (b) implies that all the Conservatives like it.
An instance where a given intonation pattern is associated with a certain grammatical structure is represented by complex sentences. Subordinate clauses usually end in a rising tune especially when initial in the sentence:
By the time he gets  there, it will be  much too late.
If I can get a   job, I'll pay it back  at    once.

6.5.1   Declaratives

Most English declarative sentences, in their neutral, unmarked version, take rise-fall intonation contour and the tonic stress on the last lexically important word in the utterance:

I have to   leave.

I’ll give it to    John.

6.5.2   Imperatives and exclamations

Like declaratives, imperatives (often referred to as commands or requests when viewed pragmatically) generally have rising-falling intonation, but they are often more forceful or affectively loaded than declarative sentences:

Write more POEMS!

Like declaratives and imperatives, exclamations also exhibit rising-falling intonation, but they sometimes give prominence to two constituents rather than one:

WHAT a perFORmance!

`    6.5.3   Questions

YES/NO questions
Neutral or unmarked YES/NO questions (i.e. questions that involve the inversion of the subject and the auxiliary verb or the addition of do as the auxiliary in sentences that have no lexical auxiliary verb) generally follow the rising intonation. Different realizations of the rising contour are possible depending on which constituent of the utterance is being emphasized:

Does John write POEMS? (emphasis on “poems” )
Does JOHN write poems? (emphasis on “John”).

Neutral or unmarked WH-questions (i.e. questions where the constituent being questioned appears in the form of a wh-word (what, who, when, where, etc) are accompanied by the rising-falling intonation. Again, different realizations of the contour depend on which constituent of the utterance is in focus:

What does John WRITE? (focus on the result/product)

What does JOHN  write? (focus on agent).

Such rising-falling intonation surprises some non-native speakers of English, who assume that all questions, regardless of type, should be spoken with rising intonation.


Transcribe the pronunciation of the following utterances, paying attention to the meanings given within brackets:

What does John WRITE? (Tell me more exactly what John writes)
What does JOHN do? (Tell me more clearly what John in particular does.

You can find the answer at the end of this unit.

Question tags
As question tags are used most frequently to seek confirmation or to make a point, the (pitch) contour which usually accompanies them in English is the rising-falling pattern:

It’s a nice   DAY, IS     n’t it?

People are worried about  eCONomy, ARE  n’t they?

This is a problem for non-native speakers as many of them speak native languages where all question tags have rising intonation regardless of discourse function. The solution proposed by discourse analysts is this:

“Students must learn that in English the speaker has a choice between using a tag to confirm an assumption (using the rising-falling pattern) or to ask an informal type of yes/no question (using rising intonation)”. (Celce-Murcia and Olshtein, 2000: 42)

The intonation of question-tags is often quoted as a case of a difference in meaning due to the difference between falling and rising tone. When the question-tag has a falling tone, like in (1) the implication is that the speaker is certain that the information is correct, and he simply expects the listener to provide confirmation. The rising tone of the question-tag indicates a lesser degree of certainty so that the question-tag functions more like a request for information as in (2):

(1)They are coming on Tuesday, aren’t they?    

(2) They are coming on Tuesday, aren’t they?   

Alternative questions
True alternative questions generally show a rise on the first part, a pause* and then a rise-fall* on the second part:

Would you like JUICE or COFfee?

Sometimes question-like utterances are not actually questions but statements or exclamations. One can distinguish between them by means of the intonation pattern that is used:

Isn't she  cute? (question)

Isn't she  cute! (exclamation).

The discourse function
Intonation may be studied in relation with discourse in terms of “attention focussing”, i.e. the use of intonation to focus the listener's attention on aspects of the message that are most important.
For example, the tone chosen can indicate whether the tone-unit in which it occurs is being used to present new information or to refer to information which is felt to be already possessed by  speaker or listener.
Thus, in a sentence like / Since  the last time we met / when we had that  huge  dinner /  I've  been on a  diet /  the first two units present information which is relevant to what the speaker is saying but which is not something new and unknown to the listener. The new information is present in the final tone-unit.
Researchers have shown that words expressing old or given information are generally spoken with weak stress and low* pitch whereas words expressing new information are spoken with strong stress and high pitch. For example, in the conversational exchange given below, whatever information is new, tends to receive special prosodic attention, namely the word is stressed and receives high pitch:

A: I’ve lost an umBRELla.

B: A LAdy’s umbrella?

A: YES. With STARS on it. GREEN stars.


Which syllables are the speakers most likely to make prominent? Remember that new information tends to come toward the end of the utterance.
Write your answers in the spaces provided below.

A: Can I help you?
B: Yes, please, I’m looking for a blazer.
A: Something casual?
B: Yes, something casual in wool.

You can find the answer at the end of this unit.

6.6   Contrastive analysis of intonation in English and Romanian

Starting from the rule of compensation at work in language, one can notice that the more rigid or fixed a grammatical structure, the richer the use of intonation.
Since English has a more rigid word order than Romanian, it has a relatively free placement of stress, depending on what part of the utterance the speaker wants to render more prominent:

JOE Callaher left home yesterday. (not George, the baker)
Joe CALLAHER left home yesterday. (not Joe Smith)
Joe Callaher LEFT home yesterday. (not came home yesterday)
Joe Callaher left HOME yesterday. (not the hospital)
Joe Callaher left home YESTERDAY. (not last week)

Both in English and Romanian there are rising and falling tunes. While a fall-rise seems to operate in both languages, the rise-fall is peculiar to English only and consequently difficult to acquire by Romanian learners:

Isn't it    awful!

Human attitudes indicated by intonation are expressed roughly by the same patterns in both languages. An area of contrast between the intonation patterns of the two languages refers to the way in which they correlate with grammatical structures.
Romanian and English show an important contrast in relation to the use of intonation in interrogative sentences; while in Romanian the use of a rising tune is the only formal means of signalling the interrogative nature of a sentence, in English a similar change in tune normally accompanies other changes in the structure of an affirmative sentence in order to function as a question:

A plecat la mare. (statement)
A plecat la mare? (question)
He has left for the seaside. (statement)
Has he left for the seaside? (question)

There are instances in which connotative shades of meanings are expressed:
by specific intonational contours in English:

You know how he is.
Wouldn't it be better to postpone our departure?

by lexical devices in Romanian (e.g. doar, oare)

Il stii doar cum e el.
N-ar fi mai bine oare să amânăm plecarea?

Since English is a language with a fairly strict word order, it will be more difficult to use word order alone as a device of emphasising certain parts of the utterance. In Romanian, one can arrange the sentence components more freely and they do not have to resort very often to prosodic features.


Effective oral communication in English requires control of prosody perhaps as much as (if not more than) control of the target language vowel and consonant sounds.
The choice of the nucleus in an utterance depends on the speech situation. The shift in nucleus location is accompanied by a change in meaning.
The attitudinal use of intonation is something that is best acquired through talking with and listening to English speakers.
At discourse level, the general pragmatic strategy used by English speakers is to emphasis new information and de-emphasis old or shared information.
The connection between intonation and grammar can be seen in the associations between intonation patterns and various types of sentences. Thus, a falling pattern is appropriate for statements, wh- questions, commands and exclamations, while a rising pattern is associated with yes / no questions and requests.
Intonation must be learnt and taught not on the basis of isolated sentences or tone-units but within their linguistic and situational context.

Key concepts

accentual function
attitudinal function
discourse function
functions of intonation
grammatical function
tone language
tone unit/intonation pattern/tune
tonic syllable/nucleus

    Further reading

1.Celce-Murcia M. and Olshtain, E.. 2000. Discourse and Context in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 30-50
2.Thorne, S. 1997. Mastering Advanced English Language, London: Macmillan, pp. 48 – 72.
3.Rogers, H.. 2000. The Sounds of Language. An Introduction to Phonetics. Harlow Essex: Pearson Education Ltd., pp. 96-108.

Answers to SAQs

Should your answer to SAQ 1 be different from the one suggested below, please read again section 6.2.

There is no need to be so upSET about it.
the nucleus is the syllable SET in upSET
the head is no need to be so
the pre-head is There’s…
the tail is about it

Should your answers to SAQ 2, SAQ 3 and SAQ 4 be different from the ones suggested below, please read again section 6.3.




I don’t MIND.

c.I’ m EASY.

Should your answer to SAQ 5 be different from the one suggested below, please read again sections 6.3.and 6.4.


            a. All OF  THEM!

            b. You DIDN’T ASK me.

            c. I  WAS first.

Should your answers to SAQ 6 and SAQ 7 be different from the ones suggested below, please read again section 6.5.3.


What does John WRITE? (Tell me more exactly what John writes)

What does JOHN do? (Tell me more clearly what John in particular does.


A: Can I HELP  you?

B: YES, please, I’m looking for a BLAser.

A: Something CASual?

B: Yes, something casual in WOOL.