English Intonation

Intonation is the way we say something, rather than the words we use. There are three areas that contribute to intonation: tone (the direction of pitch), stress (the places we choose to emphasise) and pacing (where we place our pauses).

Intonation shows the attitude of the speaker, aspects which are not possible to decipher by reading words.


English uses three tones – ↘ falling, ↘↗ fall-rising and ↗ rising, listen:


The tone begins at the main stress (tonic syllable) and continues to the end of the speech unit. In these examples, the main stress is indicated in bold, listen to the tone from to the end of the unit.

i) I’d ↘like to watch a film.
ii) I’d like to ↘↗watch a film.
iii) I’d like to watch a ↗film.
iv) ↘I’d like to watch a film.


Stress is where we place emphasis in speech. To produce stress in English, we do some or all of the following to the stressed syllable:

i) change the pitch
ii) increase the volume.
iii) lengthen the sound

Listen to this question said 5 times with a different main stress each time, can you hear these three aspects of stress?

Are you flying to Germany?

The main stress in a unit of speech is called the ‘Tonic Syllable’ (see this article on how to select the tonic syllable).

Pacing & Chunking

When we speak, we break groups of words into speech units to create clear flowing speech, and to give ourselves time to breathe. Sometimes, the placement of a pause can grammatically alter the meaning of a sentence:

The politicians who drive jaguars are corrupt.

Advice to the learner.

Intonation is a difficult skill to control consciously, we rarely think about it as we speak. It is very common for students to import the stress and intonation patterns from their first language, which can create difficulty for the listener. For this reason, learning the key skills involved in producing stress, pace and pattern can greatly improve the clarity of speech.

The most effective way to master intonation is through working on the three areas separately. Stress involves learning the rules of stress placement in words and sentences. Tone involves learning to hear and produce the three tones in different types of unit. Chunking is all about learning the structure of speech units and applying this to speech.

Each area can be learnt in isolation and then applied to free practice, discourse activities. As with pronunciation, normally the first improvement is in listening skills, which gradually transfers to the learner’s speech.