Intonation of American English

Pitch is raising and lowering the voice while speaking. The use of pitch is called intonation. The most well known use for English intonation is to communicate basic grammar, such as the use of a falling pitch on the sentence, "You're coming." compared to a rising pitch at the end of the question form, "You're coming?"

Statement intonation English Statement Intonation listen now
Question intonation English Statement Intonation listen now

Beyond that simple example, intonation is a complex world of personal choice and context-driven options. Understanding English intonation patterns will increase not only your spoken English pronunciation competence, but your English listening comprehension as well.

The terms "intonation" and "pitch" are often used interchangeably when talking about the "highness" or "lowness" of our voice when we speak. The difference between the terms is not very significant; in short, intonation is the use of pitch, just as mathematics is the use of numbers, or photography is the use of light and color. Intonation is a broader term than pitch. Being able to perceive pitch (the highness of lowness of our voice) leads to the use of correct intonation.

Three categories of Intonation

Three categories of English pitch use

Hear audio:
pitch words diagram
pitch words: book, like, yeah, fantastic
pitch boundary diagram
starting pitch diagram

Instead of studying the use and pronunciation of American English pitch only in sentence-sized units, this website separates pitch into three categories in order to study each aspect of intonation individually. It is important to realize that no category of intonation acts alone, and all three categories of intonation affect the others.

The three categories of intonation are:

  1. pitch words
  2. pitch boundary
  3. starting pitch

Pitch words are individual words that speakers choose to set apart by raising or lowering their voice on that word. Pitch words convey which word of the sentence is most important, and how to interpret the importance of that particular word. Related Lesson: Introduction to pitch words.

A pitch boundary happens at the end of an intonation unit, and tells the listener what kind of interaction the speaker is planning or expecting to happen next. Related Lesson: Coming Soon!

A starting pitch occurs at the beginning of an intonation unit and helps the listener know how what the speaker will say is going to tie in with what was already said. Related Lesson: Introduction to Starting Pitches.

Why are English intonation and pitch so complicated?

Understanding the uses of intonation is one of the most complicated aspects of spoken English for a number of reasons.

  • Research on intonation is difficult to conduct. Due to the differing nature of vowels and consonants, and voiced verses unvoiced consonants, even computers still have difficulty measuring human pitch accurately.
  • Intonation does not occur in steps, like a ladder, but rather by gradation, with one tone blending into the next.
  • Intonation is relative. One person's high pitch may be another person's mid-range pitch.
  • In English speech, intonation does not have syntactic rules governing its use. Vocabulary and grammar are relatively rigid in English, but intonation is not.
  • Intonation is emotional, and therefore difficult to measure.