Intonation

American English

Statement Rising Pitch Boundaries

Low-rise verses high-rise pitch boundary

A rising pitch boundary goes up in pitch at the end of an intonation unit, usually on the last syllable. A high-rise pitch boundary rises farther than a low-rise pitch boundary. There is no distinct boundary between the level of a low-rise and a high-rise; both are relative to the other pitches used by the speaker.

Purpose of the low-rise pitch boundary

Spoken statements may use a rising intonation without signaling a question and there are different uses for a rising pitch boundary based on its placement in the sentence. A low rise in pitch in the middle of the sentence can signal that:

  • the speaker is going to continue speaking, probably adding extra details in the following intonation unit
  • the speaker is making a list of items or events

A low rise at the end of a sentence has a more emotional connotation, and may signal that:

  • the speaker is showing uncertainty or expressing non-assertiveness

Mid-sentence low-rise

A low-rise pitch boundary in the middle of a sentence tells the listener that additional information, usually closely tied to the information in the rising intonation unit, is coming next in the dialog. The rise may be quite subtle and not raise as high as certain types of questions.

English intonation unit more listen now

Analysis:

The first sentence ends with a falling pitch boundary, but not a deep enough drop to signal another speaker to take a turn. The first intonation unit of the second sentence rises slightly, which tells the listener that the speaker is not yet finished speaking, and is going to add more detail to the sentence. The significant drop on the word day at the end of the sentence signals that the speaker is finished speaking.

End of sentence low-rise

English intonation unit more listen now

Analysis:

The second speaker's response to the first speaker expresses a state of uncertainty, or a lack of confidence in her previous notion of when the first speaker would be leaving on the trip.

English intonation unit more listen now

Analysis:

It could be assumed that first speaker realized that the second speaker was surprised by the initial statement of the dialog (due to the low-rise) and is striving to lessen the impact of that statement by using a rising pitch boundary on the word Friday. This shows a weakening, or softening, of the statement.

Low-rise: Lists

Spoken lists use a rising pitch boundary after each item on the list, until they come to a falling pitch on the final item. The use of a rising pitch boundary can be thought of as a notification to the listener that more content is forthcoming in the spoken list.

English intonation unit more listen now

Analysis:

All of the items in the list are both high pitch words and the final word of a pitch boundary. Only the final word of the list has a falling pitch. This tells the listener that the list is ongoing through each rising pitch boundary, then completed when a falling pitch boundary is heard.


Lists can be made of phrases as well as individual items.

English intonation unit more listen now

Analysis:

The previous list is made of a series of individual clauses. The rising intonation tells the listener that the list will continue until the speaker has said the final item on the list.


Speakers are more likely to use a rising pitch if they are trying to draw attention to individual items. The following example can be said with more or fewer intonation units (and pitch boundaries), depending on the intended emphasis of each individual item. Note the difference in punctuation of the following examples:

English intonation unit more listen now
English intonation unit more listen now

Analysis:

Even though the vocabulary is identical in both examples, the first example uses more pauses and slower speech than the second example. Also, because it has more pitch words and pitch boundaries, the pitch of the whole sentence rises and falls more frequently than the second example. This tells the listener that the speaker is more insistent and emphatic than in the second example.

Statement: High-rise

A more dramatic rise in pitch in a spoken statement signals a listener that a speaker is looking for some kind of interaction, but not necessarily giving up the position of speaker. Usually, the speaker is looking for an utterance of "uh-huh," "yeah," a nodding of the head, or something similar. This is a way for the speaker to confirm that the listener still comprehends, and may be a quick check that the listener agrees with the speaker.

English intonation unit more listen now

Analysis:

The rising pitch on the words you know signal to the listener that the speaker is looking for agreement, not looking for an answer to a question.

The speaker could have used a falling pitch on you know, which would have shown more certainty and confidence by the speaker. (See Statement Falling Pitch Boundary lesson.)

English intonation unit more listen now

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Exercises

Compare rising and falling pitch boundaries

Quizzes

Compare rising and falling pitch boundaries

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