The importance of intonation in the English language

The importance of intonation in the English language

by Cassie Wright

Updated November 10, 2022

Have you ever said something correctly, only to find out that the other person didn’t understand what you meant? For instance, maybe you wanted to know what your friend was eating and asked: “What is that?”
Only, your friend thought you were being rude. It’s a frustrating problem for English language learners. Your grammar might be perfect and your pronunciation could be great, but it still comes out wrong. Why?
Instead of learning how to apologise after everything you say, it might be time to learn how to use sentence stress correctly. If you’re not careful, it can cause a whole lot of trouble.

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What is sentence stress and intonation?

English depends on stress to help provide meaning. It’s known as a stress-timed language. But what is the importance of intonation in English?

In other words, some words in a sentence are emphasized when speaking. This gives English its rhythm while also letting others know which words are important. Without sentence stress, you’ll find that your spoken English sounds forced or unnatural.

For example, in a sentence like “I’m learning to play the violin,” a native speaker might emphasize the words learning, play, and violin. Meanwhile, the words I’mto, and the, are spoken more softly or rushed because the listener is likely to understand the content of the sentence without them.

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How can intonation change your sentence?

Unfortunately for English learners, sentence stress can change. If you’ve ever accidentally stressed the wrong word in a sentence, you already know that this can also lead to a difference in meaning.

But how does that work?

Think about the opening situation again. Imagine you go out to lunch with a friend and your friend orders something that looks delicious. You could ask:

What is that?
If you emphasize the word what, you seem to be expressing genuine interest. You want to know what it is.

What is that?
On the other hand, emphasizing is means that you’re sceptical about your friend’s food. You think it looks strange and you want your friend to tell you why it even exists.

What is that?
If you emphasise the word that, you’re placing importance on the food as an object. Your friend interprets this as an expression of disgust because you’ve emphasized the food as a thing (perhaps one that might turn into a monster).

Similarly, placing stress on the wrong word in a sentence can make you sound more rude or demanding, especially when asking a question. For example:

Where is my coffee?
Emphasis on the word where can easily come across as demanding. It expects someone else to find what you’re looking for.

Where is my coffee?
Placing more emphasis on the word coffee comes across as a more neutral question. It points out what you’re looking for and suggests that you’re just confused about where to find it.

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Once you understand the way stress can change your sentences, you’ll find that you have a bit more control and freedom when you want to express yourself in English. Try practicing by coming up with a few of your own sentences and thinking about how stressing each word differently might change the meaning.

Just be careful if you decide to practice around your friends. You wouldn’t want them to think you’re being rude on purpose!

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