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Intonation in English pronunciation

What is intonation?

Intonation is the melody or tune of the spoken language. If you make mistakes with the sounds in English, the listener will often still understand you. If you make mistakes with the intonation your mood or feelings about what you have said may be misunderstood.

Sometimes the same words, said with different intonation can have different emphasis or meaning. For example: When answering a question such as "Your name is John, isn't it?" and "Your name isn't John, is it?" The words in your answer may be "No, it isn't", if your name is not John. BuT In one case you are confirming the opinion of the person asking the question and in the other case you are expressing disagreement and surprise.

listen and check

A: Your name is John, isn't it? B: No, it isn't! A: Your name isn't John, is it? B: No, it isn't!

  1. Intonation is rising and falling tones over a group of words.
  2. Falling intonation (Certainty or completion)
    1. Statements
    2. Information questions (Not yes or no)
    3. Commands
    4. Direction
  3. Rising intonation - (unsure or asking a question)
    1. Yes/No questions

Intonation Exercises

Listen to the following sentences spoken first with intonation as normal and then in a monotonous way without changing voice tones and staying on the same level, not going up and not going down. Repeat the sentences the correct way with intonation.

Sentences to listen and copy

  1. I can't stand it.

  2. Did you really just give that street beggar ?
  3. Silly old fool

change the stress and change the context or meaning

I didn't steal the books from the library.
Depending on which word I stress, I will mean five completely different things.

  1. I didn't steal the books from the library. It was Tom. It must have been somebody else. (It wasn't me that stole them, it was somebody else.)

  2. I didn't steal the books from the library. I was out shopping at the time. (I deny it! I never did such a thing.) - Provide an alibi

  3. I didn't steal the books from the library. I borrowed them. (I borrowed the books from the library.)

  4. I didn't steal the books from the library. I only stole some notepaper, and I thought it wouldn't matter. (I might have stolen something, but not the books)

  5. I didn't steal the books from the library. I stole them from shop across the street. (OK I stole them. It's a fair cop! But I stole them from the school and not the library.)

Some more sentences.

For each sentences, see how many different meanings or different ways to emphasis words there might be. You can also add pauses to change the meaning and emphasis. In written form you may insert a comma.

  1. I didn't say we should kill him
  2. He is at home in the kitchen.

Make up different sentence stress versions of this sentence with possible follow up sentences to show the meaning.


Stressed and unstressed words in English pronunciation

Learning long words

  1. How many syllables does each word have?
  2. Which syllable is stressed?

Stressed Words

  1. Nouns e.g. kitchen, peter
  2. (most) principle verbs e.g. visit, construct
  3. Adjectives e.g. beautiful, interesting
  4. Adverbs e.g. often, carefully

Non-stressed words

  1. Determiners e.g. the, a, some, a few
  2. Auxiliary verbs e.g. don't, am, can, were
  3. prepositions e.g. before, next to, opposite
  4. Conjunctions e.g. but, while, as
  5. pronouns e.g. they, she, us

Find stressed words

Practice reading these sentences. Notice the intonation and stressed words.

  1. John is coming over tonight. We are going to work on our homework together.

  2. Ecstasy is an extremely dangerous drug.

  3. We should have visited some more castles while we were travelling through the back roads of France.

  4. Jack bought a new car last Friday.

  5. They are looking forward to your visiting them next January.

  6. Exciting discoveries lie in Tom's future.

  7. Would you like to come over and play a game of chess?

  8. They have been having to work hard these last few months on their challenging experiment.

  9. Shakespeare wrote passionate, moving poetry.

  10. As you might have expected, he has just thought of a new approach to the problem.

  11. I saw him first.
  12. I saw him first at the supermarket and then at the bus station.
  13. He didn't say a word.
  14. "What have you been doing", said the medical man.
  15. The medical man said, "What have you been doing".
  16. I will be alright in a minute.
  17. He had nothing on except a pair of socks with holes in them.
  18. A man could not get so covered in dust by doing nothing at all, could he?
  19. He sat down without a word and ate his meal.
  20. He shuffled about in his seat a little then poured himself some wine.
  21. It's true! Every word of it.
  22. But no interruptions please. Agreed?
  23. Have you considered this issue, and if so what decision have you come to?
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