Basic Intonation Concepts
Paul S Gruber, MS, CCC-SLP
American English Intonation Help

Intonation Concepts
Stress - Pitch - Duration - Intensity
Stress and Pitch changes are used to create basic word level intonation patterns.



Stressed and Unstressed


In American English, the important parts of the word or sentence are given more prominence via higher pitch, longer duration, and increased volume. The speaker can automatically emphasize them by stressing certain syllables within a word and/or specific words in the sentence. Syllables and words that have less informational value in their message are unstressed by speaking at a lower pitch, a faster rate and with decreased volume.


Rising and Falling


In American English, we usually use only one high note within a thought group. This rise in pitch is used on the word or word syllable that the speaker wishes to emphasize for its importance. 

Stressed syllables and words are those carrying the highest informational value. The speaker automatically emphasizes them by speaking in a higher pitch. Verbal pitch refers to the various levels of tone from high to low that we use when speaking. To better explain this constant fluctuation let us use emotion. When we are excited, our voice will move into a higher range. When we are dejected, our voice moves into the lower range. Pitch changes are accomplished via steps or slides.


Steps and Slides

In American English our pitch covers a range of about four tones. We use our voice within this range by using either steps or slides.

In step changes, each syllable of a word has its own separate tone. In the word “paper” the first syllable “pa” is on a higher level and then drops to a lower level for “per.”

Pronunciation Practice:


3    pa

2         per 


In sliding pitch, the voice is either sliding up (Rising Pitch) or sliding down (Falling Pitch) on a particular vowel.

To contrast the difference, the rising pitch in the word “home” for example can be voiced sliding up on the vowel.

Pronunciation Practice:

4        e

3      m

2     o

1   H


The falling pitch in the word “home” can be voiced sliding down on the vowel.

Pronunciation Practice:

4   H

3     o

2       m

1          e


Prolong or Shorten the Vowel Sound


In conversational speech, the words or syllables which have the most informational value in the message are said more slowly. In essence, we are devoting the greatest amount of time in saying or stressing those important syllables and words of the sentence. Duration of the stressed words or syllables can be increased by prolonging the vowel sound. In contrast the duration of the unstressed word or syllable can be reduced by shortening the length of time in pronouncing the vowel by saying it quickly.

Pronunciation Practice:

  1. ni ce
  2. ha t
  3. soo n
  4. ma de
  5. lo ng
  6. bro ke

Increased and Decreased Volume

Stressed syllables and words are those carrying the highest informational value. The speaker automatically emphasizes them by speaking with increased volume. The stressed portions of the conversational speech will be slightly louder. The unstressed portions will be said more softly.
Pronunciation Practice:
1. advice                                 4.  disa
2. belated                                5. education
3. circumstance

Which Words to Stress 


Generally, content words are stressed and function words are left unstressed. In a sentence you can basically divide words into two categories:
1)    content words-have meaning in themselves
2)    function words-have little or no meaning other than for the grammatical
Content Words usually stressed are:
Nouns (subjects)
Verbs (actions)
Adjectives (describing the subject)
Adverbs (describing the action)
Demonstratives (this, that, these, those)
Interrogatives (who, when, why, what, how)
Function Words usually unstressed are:
Articles (a, an, the)
Simple prepositions (to, of, in)
Personal pronouns (I, me he, him, she, her, it)
Possessive adjectives (my, his, your)
Relative pronouns (who, that, which)
Common Conjunctions (and, but, that, as, if,)
The Verbs (be, have, do, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must)