You can tell a lot about the meaning behind someone's words by assessing their intonation. The same sentence can hold a very different meaning in different contexts, and the intonation used will heavily influence this meaning. 

Intonation Intonation

Create learning materials about Intonation with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    There are several intonation types you need to be aware of; this article will cover some intonation examples and explain the difference between prosody and intonation. There are a few other terms that are closely linked to intonation that you'll need to understand too. These include intonation vs. inflection and intonation vs. stress.

    Intonation, men talking and listening, StudySmarterFig 1. Intonation is one of the sound qualities of speech that affect the meaning of verbal utterances

    Intonation Definition

    To begin, let's look at a quick definition of the word intonation. This will give us a solid foundation from which to continue exploring this topic:

    Intonation refers to how the voice can change pitch to convey meaning. In essence, intonation replaces punctuation in spoken language.

    E.g., "This article is about intonation." In this sentence, the full stop signifies where the pitch falls.

    "Would you like to continue reading?" This question ends in a question mark, which shows us that the pitch rises at the end of the question.

    Pitch refers to how high or low a sound is. In the context of this article, the sound we're concerned with is the voice.

    We are able to make our voices get higher or deeper (change the pitch of our voices) by altering the shape of our vocal cords (or vocal folds). When our vocal cords are stretched out more, they vibrate more slowly as air passes through them. This slower vibration causes a lower or deeper sound. When our vocal cords are shorter and thinner, the vibration is faster, creating a higher-pitched sound.

    Intonation comprises several components, including stress and inflection. Although these terms are frequently used interchangeably, they do have subtle differences in meaning, and each term has its own significance. We'll be exploring these terms in greater detail later on in this article, as well as looking at how they relate to intonation.

    Prosody is another word you might have come by in your English Language studies, and it is an important term to distinguish from intonation. We will now be looking at the definition of prosody and how it fits in with intonation.

    Difference Between Prosody and Intonation

    With the above definition of intonation in mind, how does it differ from prosody? The two terms are closely linked, but despite having similar meanings, they are not the same thing.

    Prosody refers to the patterns of intonation and rhythm that exist in a language.

    You can see that prosody is an umbrella term under which intonation falls. Prosody refers to the undulation (wavelike movement or seamless up-and-down motion) of pitch across a language as a whole, whereas intonation is more concerned with an individual's speech.

    In other words, "intonation" is a prosodic feature.

    Prosodic features are the sound qualities of a voice.

    Aside from intonation, other prosodic features include volume (loudness), tempo (speed), pitch (frequency), rhythm (sound pattern), and stress (emphasis).

    It's quite likely that you'll come across these terms during your studies, so it's worth making a note of them!

    Intonation, soundwaves, StudySmarterFig 2. Prosody refers to the different qualities of sound

    Intonation Types

    Every language has its own intonation patterns, but since we're concerned with the English language, we'll focus on the intonation types belonging to English. There are three main intonation types to be aware of: falling intonation, rising intonation, and non-final intonation.

    Falling Intonation

    Falling intonation is when the voice falls or lowers in pitch (gets deeper) towards the end of a sentence. This type of intonation is one of the most common and usually happens at the end of statements. Falling intonation can also occur at the end of some kinds of questions, such as those beginning with "who", "what", "where", "why", and "when."

    Statement: "I'm going shopping."

    Question: "What did you think of the presentation?"

    Both of these utterances feature a falling intonation when spoken aloud.

    Rising Intonation

    Rising intonation is essentially the opposite of falling intonation (in case that was unclear!) and is when the voice rises or gets higher in pitch towards the end of a sentence. Rising intonation is most common in questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no."

    "Did you enjoy the presentation?"

    In this question, there would be a rise in pitch (your voice would get slightly higher) at the end of the question. This is different from the "what" question example in the falling intonation section.

    If you try saying both questions one after the other, you can see more clearly how the intonation changes at the end of each question.

    Try it yourself - Repeat this: "Did you enjoy the presentation? What did you think of the presentation?" aloud. Did you notice the different types of intonation?

    Non-final Intonation

    In non-final intonation, there is a rise in pitch and a fall in pitch in the same sentence. Non-final intonation is used in several different circumstances, including introductory phrases and unfinished thoughts, as well as when listing several items or giving multiple choices.

    In each of these utterances, there is an intonation spike (where the voice gets higher) followed by an intonation dip (where the voice gets lower).

    Introductory phrase: "In fact, I know the area quite well."

    Unfinished thought: "I have always wanted a dog, but..."

    List of items: "My favorite subjects are English Language, Psychology, Biology, and Drama."

    Offering choices: "Would you prefer Italian or Chinese for dinner tonight?"

    Intonation Examples

    Why is intonation so important, then? We now know how intonation replaces punctuation during verbal exchanges, so let's explore some intonation examples focusing on how intonation can change meaning:

    1.) "Enjoy the meal" (note the lack of punctuation).

    • If we apply a falling intonation to the utterance, it becomes clear that it is a statement – "Enjoy the meal." This shows that the speaker is telling the listener to enjoy their meal.

    • However, a rising intonation takes the utterance from a statement to a question – "Enjoy the meal?" This shows that the speaker is asking whether the listener enjoyed the meal or not.

    2.) "You left"

    • With a falling intonation, this phrase becomes the statement "You left." which shows that the speaker is pointing something out to the listener.

    • With rising intonation, the phrase becomes a question, "You left?" which shows that the speaker might be confused about the listener's actions/ reasons for leaving or is asking for clarification about the scenario.

    Intonation, man holding a question mark, StudySmarterFig 3. Intonation can change a statement into a question.

    Intonation vs. Inflection

    By now, you should have a good understanding of intonation, but where does inflection come into the picture? This definition about sums it up:

    Inflection refers to the upward or downward change in pitch of the voice.

    This might sound super similar to the definition of intonation, so let's look at it a bit more closely. "Intonation" is basically the all-encompassing term for different inflections. In other words, an inflection is a component of intonation.

    In the question "Where are you from?", there is a downward inflection towards the end of the utterance (on the "from"). This downward inflection illustrates that this question has a falling intonation.

    Stress and Intonation

    If you recall the beginning of this article, you'll remember we briefly mentioned "stress." In the world of prosody, stress doesn't refer to anxious feelings or any other emotion at all.

    Stress refers to added intensity or emphasis placed on a syllable or word in a spoken utterance, which makes the stressed syllable or word louder. Stress is another component of intonation.

    Different kinds of words place stress on different syllables:

    Word TypeStress Example
    Two-syllable nouns (stress on the first syllable)TAble, WINdow, DOCtor
    Two-syllable adjectives (stress on the first syllable)HAppy, DIRty, TALLer
    Two-syllable verbs (stress on the last syllable)deCLINE, imPORT, obJECT
    Compound nouns (stress on the first word)GREENhouse, PLAYgroup
    Compound verbs (stress on the second word)underSTAND, overFLOW

    This is by no means an exhaustive list of word and stress types but should give you a decent idea of how stress affects the pronunciation of words.

    Changing the stress on some words can completely change their meaning.

    For example, the word "present" is a noun (a gift) when the stress is on the first syllable - PRESent, but it becomes a verb (to show) when the stress is moved to the last syllable -preSENT.

    Another example is the word "desert". When the stress is on the first syllable - DESert - then the word is a noun (as in the Sahara Desert). When we move the stress to the second syllable - deSERT - then it becomes a verb (to abandon).

    Intonation - Key takeaways

    • Intonation refers to the way in which the voice changes in pitch to convey meaning.
    • There are three key types of intonation in English: rising intonation, falling intonation, non-final intonation.
    • Prosodics refers to the sound qualities of verbal communication.
    • Stress and inflection are components of intonation.
    • Intonation can replace punctuation in verbal communication.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Intonation

    What is the best definition of intonation?

    Intonation refers to the way in which the voice changes in pitch to convey meaning. 

    What are the 3 types of intonation?

    The four types of intonation are: 

    • rising
    • falling
    • non-final

    Are stress and intonation the same?

    Stress and intonation are not the same thing. Stress refers to the where the emphasis is placed in a word or sentece, whereas intonation refers to the rising and lowering of pitch in a person's voice. 

    What is the difference between intonation and inflection?

    Intonation and inflection are very similar in meaning and are sometimes used interchangeably. There are subtle differences between them though: intonation refers to the way in which a voice rises or lowers in pitch whereas inflection refers more specifically to the upward or downward movement of the voice. Intonation is affected by inflections.

    What are intonation examples?

    An example of intonation can be seen in most questions, particularly simple questions or yes/ no questions. 

    e.g., "Enjoy the meal?" In this sentence, the last word has a rising intonation which emphasizes that it is a question rather than a statement. Punctuation is not visible in speech so intonation tells the listener how to interpret what is being said.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these describes "intonation"?

    Which of these describes "stress"?

    How many key types of intonation are there in English?


    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Teachers

    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner