English Intonation: Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

Woman speaking

English intonation is fundamentally linked with stressed and unstressed syllables.

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Students who speak English as a second language often want to sound like native English speakers. In fact, this is a common goal in many English classrooms.

While there’s nothing wrong with sounding like a non-native speaker, sounding like a native English speaker is about a lot more than fitting in. Proper English intonation can make the difference between understanding and misunderstanding what someone says.

However, figuring out when certain syllables should be stressed or unstressed can be challenging for non-native speakers. In order to understand these two concepts better, we’ll need to a look at what English intonation means.

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English Intonation:

What is English Intonation?

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Intonation in English refers to the way in which the voice rises and falls when speaking or singing.

You might have noticed that, when a native English speaker says something, certain words or phrases have a higher pitch, while others have a lower pitch. This is what intonation means.

Voice intonation in English matters because it can govern meaning and mood.

There are essentially three types of intonation: falling intonation, rising intonation, and flat or unchanging intonation. Falling intonation refers to speech that goes from a high pitch to a low pitch, rising intonation refers to speech that goes from a low pitch to a high pitch, and flat intonation refers to speech that has no change in pitch.

All three of these have different functions based on the mood and intention of the words. However, falling and rising are the most common patterns of English intonation. Falling and rising intonation are both denoted by arrows. A downward arrow (↘) signifies falling intonation, while an upward arrow (↗) signifies rising intonation.

Falling Intonation (↘)

In English, falling intonation is the most common pattern. Many statements, commands, and Wh- questions make use of falling intonation. Typically, the intonation falls on the last word or syllable in a sentence. In the intonation examples below, the pitch falls on the underlined word or syllable:

  • Statements
    • I like your (↘) haircut.
    • We moved to New (↘) York.
    • They have three (↘) cats.
    • He was born in (↘) September.
  • Commands
    • Go to your (↘) room.
    • Bring me my (↘) keys.
    • Open the (↘) door.
    • Help me carry this (↘) upstairs.
  • Wh- Questions
    • Who is that (↘) man?
    • What is your (↘) name?
    • When will you be (↘) home?
    • Where are you (↘) going?
    • Why does he look (↘) sad?
    • How are you (↘) feeling?

As you can see, these are all pretty standard sentences and questions that one might hear in an English conversation. Falling intonation is common because it denotes a neutral tone. So, during casual conversation, you will hear it frequently at the end of many sentences.

Rising Intonation (↗)

Rising intonation is not as common as falling intonation, but it is equally important for certain situations. Using rising intonation at the end of a question encourages the other person to fill in the missing information. It is most commonly used in yes/no questions and tag questions. For example:

  • Yes/No Questions
    • Are you a (↗) Gemini?
    • Do you want to watch a (↗) film?
    • Is he your (↗) friend?
    • May I use the (↗) bathroom?
  • Tag Questions
    • We studied English together, (↗) didn’t we?
    • You want to go to the park, (↗) don’t you?
    • The weather is so nice, (↗) isn’t it?
    • He likes bowling, (↗) doesn’t he?

Flat or Unchanging Intonation

Unlike falling or rising intonation, unchanging intonation is not common in English.

This type of intonation pattern is often referred to as “monotone.” People don’t use unchanging intonation in normal conversations because it can sound unnatural or robotic.

Rise-Fall Intonation (↗↘)

In addition to the three English intonation patterns listed above, there are also two combination patterns: Rise-Fall and Fall-Rise Intonation. We commonly use the rise-fall pattern for “either/or” questions, lists, and conditional statements. For example:

  • “Either/Or” Questions or Statements
    • You can have either (↗) the fish or (↘) the beef.
    • Do you want to go (↗) hiking or (↘) fishing?
    • Is she (↗) a student or (↘) a teacher?
    • Is the football game on (↗) Saturday or (↘) Sunday?
  • Lists
    • I have (↗) three books, two pencils, one ruler, and (↘) one eraser.
    • I like (↗) swimming, dancing, and (↘) play tennis.
    • The apartment includes (↗) two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and (↘) a kitchen.
    • He ate (↗) breakfast, lunch, and (↘) dinner.
  • Conditional Statements
    • If you have any (↗) questions, feel free to give me a (↘) call.
    • If you keep having (↗) pain, put ice on (↘) it.
    • If you’re (↗) happy, I’m (↘) happy.
    • If he wants to (↗) come, he needs to start (↘) packing.

What are stressed and unstressed syllables?

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A stressed syllable is the part of a word that you say with greater emphasis than the other syllables. Alternatively, an unstressed syllable is a part of a word that you say with less emphasis than the stressed syllable(s). However, you don’t emphasize or deemphasize syllables using volume; instead, you use pitch.

You’re probably wondering how stressed and unstressed syllables are related to English intonation. Though emphasis (stress) and pitch (intonation) are different, they are connected. How we stress certain syllables or words changes the pitch. Similarly, the pitch we use in certain contexts can also affect which syllables get stressed.

Rules for Stressed and Unstressed Syllables

Figuring out which syllables to stress is not always easy in English. However, there are a few rules that can help you:

  • If the word is a two-syllable noun or adjective, the stress usually falls on the first syllable. For example: PIzza, LAzy, BOttle, QUIet.
  • If a word ends in -al, -cy, -ty, -phy, or -gy, the stress falls on the third from the last syllable. For example: geneOLogy, LOgical, phoTOGraphy.
  • If a word ends in -ic, -sion, or -tion, the stress usually falls on the next to last syllable. For example: atTRACtion, FUsion, BASic.
  • If a word is a two-syllable verb or preposition, the stress usually falls on the second syllable. For example: beSIDE, aDAPT, reCEIVE.

Naturally, these rules don’t cover every word in the English language (not even close!) and most of these rules have exceptions. With many words, you will simply have to memorize which syllables are stressed or unstressed.

That said, if you’re stuck on a certain word, try saying it several times, stressing a different syllable each time. In most cases, you can figure out how it should be stressed through the process of elimination. Some syllables just sound unnatural when you try to stress them. Let’s use the word “memorize” to practice. For example:

  • ME-mo-rize
  • Me-MO-rize
  • Me-mo-RIZE

If you say the word out loud, you will probably realize that the second option is definitely wrong. Additionally, while the third option doesn’t sound completely wrong, it doesn’t sound as natural as the first option.

English Intonation and Stressed Syllable Resources

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Though learning the rules for intonation and stressed or unstressed syllables is important, the best way to learn is to listen and practice with native English speakers. Actually hearing the way that pitch and stress change in natural conversation will help you implement correct intonation and syllable stress in your own speech. So, here are a few free resources to help get you started:

In conclusion, we hope you found this guide helpful! If you’d like to learn more about intonation or stressed and unstressed syllables in English, visit Magoosh Speaking today!