Stress, Rhythm and Intonation

Stress, rhythm and intonation are inextricably linked. It is almost impossible to speak of any one of these aspects of spoken English without referring to the others. However it is clearly necessary for the sake of clarity to deal with each one individually. What I propose to do, then, is to begin with a brief overview of these interrelated questions and then go on to look at each one separately.

Look at the following sentence. What information is needed to be able to pronounce it correctly?

"There was a photographer at the corner of the street."[1]

You will all have noticed that there is a clear trend in English to give particular emphasis to the most important items of information in any utterance. English speakers tend to "package" their spoken production in such a way as to highlight what they consider to be the essential elements of the message they wish to put across. In this particular case, it is most likely that the speaker will highlight the words "photographer", "corner" and "street". As a consequence, he (or she[2]) will tend to reduce the stress he gives to the other, less important items in the sentence. To illustrate what I mean, by taking this to an absurd extreme, an utterance such as "hum hum hum photographer hum hum corner hum hum street" would probably be understood. In a particularly noisy situation, people might not even realize that what you had actually said in place of the unstressed syllables was "hum hum" etc. and would assume that they had not been able to identify the sounds clearly because of the high level of background noise. They would I believe almost unconsciously substitute the predictable words "There was a", "at the" and "of the" in place of your hum-humming.

On the other hand an excessively full pronunciation "There was a photographer at the corner of the street" would be ridiculous, unless perhaps the sentence was pronounced under specific a-typical circumstances, as for example during a dictation exercise. There is no point in ordinary life wasting people's time by stressing predictable, relatively uninformative, and therefore largely redundant parts of sentences. Hence the need to stress the informative parts of an utterance and not the rest.

Now let's return to the example. We have identified the words "photographer", "corner" and "street" as requiring stress within the sentence. However we have not yet considered where to place the stress within the words themselves. There is of course no difficulty about "street", which only has one syllable. We now need to know where to place the stress in the other two words, according to the stress rules. "photographer" is stressed on the second syllable, or to be more accurate the antepenultimate syllable, and "corner" on the first, or penultimate.

So we now know that the stress in our sentence will fall on "pho to grapher", "cor ner", and "street". What happens to the rest of the sentence? All the other syllables in the sentence will be reduced to their weak form, which in this particular sentence happens to be the "schwa" in all cases. In actual fact, not all unstressed syllables are reduced to a weak form, and the "schwa" is not the only phoneme used in weak forms. It is, however, the most common. In colloquial English, it accounts for almost 11% of all vowel sounds[3].

So we have three stressed syllables, and a number of unstressed syllables. Before we actually pronounce the sentence there is one other fundamental aspect of spoken English we must take into account, and that is rhythm. There is a clear tendency in English to pronounce stressed syllables according to a relatively regular rhythm organised around the stressed syllables. English is a stress-timed language which tends toward a regular rhythm of broadly equal-length beats on stressed syllables, the unstressed syllables being "squeezed in" to fit the available time, and frequently reduced to a weak form.

"There was a pho to grapher at the cor ner of the street."

So to make any utterance in English, you need to decide which words in the sentence convey "new" information. You then need to know which syllables of these words carry stress, you need to know what to do with the remaining syllables-in other words you need to know their weak forms-and you need to pronounce the whole thing according to the relatively regular rhythm pattern of English.

Then, of course, you have to decide on the appropriate intonation. What sort of tune do you use? If the sentence is a simple statement, "There was a pho to grapher at the cor ner of the street.", the appropriate intonation is a falling tune on the last stressed syllable. Preceding stressed syllables will normally be spoken at a higher level. The same sentence could be a question, calling the information it contains into doubt. If this is the case, then the sentence is pronounced with an intonation that rises progressively from one stressed syllable to the next, with a particularly marked rise on the final stressed syllable: "There was a pho to grapher at the cor ner of the street?"

Let us now move on to look at the phenomena of word stress, weak forms, rhythm and intonation separately and in more detail.

Word Stress

"... the hearer expects sharp contrasts of prominence and expects peaks of prominence at particular places in a word or a phrase. Understanding is severely handicapped if such expectations are frustrated."[4]


There is a very clear tendency in English to organize an utterance around stressed syllables according to a regular rhythm. This does not mean, of course, that you should speak English with a kind of precise mental metronome, but there is a very clear tendency towards this kind of rhythmical pattern. One implication of this is that the unstressed syllables between stressed syllables tend to contract or expand to fill the time available. Here are some examples of phrases with zero, one, two, or three syllables between the stressed syllables (in bold print). Repeat after the recording :

1 a good boy (zero syllables)

2 as good as gold (one syllable)

3 as quick as a flash (two syllables)

4 as nutty as a fruit cake (three syllables)

Tub-thumping politicians with a robust oratorical style tend to stress a large proportion of the words in their speeches, as if to underline the importance of what they have to say. There are consequently relatively few unstressed syllables to fit in between the stressed syllables. This is an example of the sort of thing I mean :

"The people of this country are no longer prepared to sit back and let Whitehall mandarins rule their lives. It is high time the British government took notice of what the people really want."

Less deliberately emphatic speech contains a much higher proportion of unstressed syllables. Let's look at an example :

This is the paper I bought yesterday morning

The stress will fall (in a fairly neutral sort of context) on This, 'paper, bought, 'yesterday, and 'morning. This gives :

'This is the 'paper I 'bought 'yesterday 'morning

You will notice the relatively regular rhythm. What this means is that the unstressed syllables will tend to be pronounced rather faster to squeeze them up to maintain the approximately regular rhythmic beat on the stressed syllables.


This is the / paper I / bought / yesterday / morning


Intonation serves two basic types of function in English. It can serve to let your listener know whether or not you have finished your sentence, or whether, on the contrary, you intend to add to what you have just said, and, for example, whether you are making a statement or asking a question. It can also serve to convey information about your attitude. Are you trying to be friendly, or helpful, or are you being cold and hostile?

The first of these two uses is conveniently illustrated by the example of lists. When you are giving a list, you need to signal whether the list is finished or not. For example if somebody asks you which countries in Europe you have been to, you might say, "I've been to Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, England and Sweden. Each item before "Sweden" will be pronounced with rising intonation, and "Sweden", the last item in your list, with falling intonation. To take another example, if you want to offer your guests a drink, and you only have sherry and whisky, you might ask, "Would you like sherry or whisky." The falling intonation on the last element of the list should signal to your guests that it's no good asking for port, gin, or anything else. If, however, your drinks cabinet is remarkably well stocked, so much so that you have difficulty in remembering everything you could offer your guests, you might use the same sentence as above, but with a different intonation pattern to suggest that the list of drinks you mention is by no means exhaustive: "Would you like sherry, or whisky ...".

It can also be used in some rather more complicated "grammatical" contexts, to signal for example a parenthesis. Consider this example :

"The capitalism that President Smith advocates, for it is capitalism, however strenuously he and his advisers deny it, is of a kind that his electorate will find increasingly difficult to accept."

The boundaries of the parenthetic remark " ... for it is capitalism, however strenuously he and his advisers deny it, ..." are signalled by intonation markers. This would involve rising intonation at the end of the part of the sentence which comes before the parenthesis, to show that the sentence is not finished, and then rising intonation again at the end of the parenthesis, followed by an intonation pattern that seems to carry on from where it was interrupted.

Another example of the way in which intonation and "sentence stress" can provide a kind of "audible punctuation" occurs when a contrast is made within an utterance. Take this example:

"You might enjoy watching Sumo wrestling on television, but I certainly don't!"

The words which should stand out are undelined. In a sense, the intonation pattern corresponds to a kind of  "audible underlining".

In the following example, however, only intelligent reading will enable you to mentally underline the words involved in the contrast, here "Arthur" and "Janet" in the second sentence. Listen :

"Arthur took Janet to the theatre to see Tom Stoppard's play 'Travesties'. Arthur thought it was the funniest play he had ever seen, but Janet said she had never been so bored in all her life."

Intonation is also used to distinguish statements from questions and so on, and I would like to turn to this particular function of intonation before we go on to look at how intonation can convey information as to the speaker's attitude. This brief review of intonation in English will inevitably be rather simplified because of lack of time.


Statements will normally be pronounced with falling intonation on the stressed syllable of the last "important" word in the "information unit" (sentence, phrase, clause ...) For example, in a sentence such as "John bought a new car this morning", in which "car" is the last important word, the fall takes place on this word. Stressed syllables occurring before the stressed syllable of the last "important" word may be pronounced at a high or low level, according to factors such as the degree of interest the speaker wishes to express. Words occurring after it are pronounced (still in the case of statements) at a uniformly low level.

Unstressed syllables preceding the first stressed syllables of the sentence (information unit would be more precise, but in most of the examples here the information unit will be a sentence, for the sake of simplicity) are pronounced on a low level. For example the word "the" in:

The next train is at five.

"Yes-No" and "wh" questions

"Yes-no" questions are, as their name suggests, questions which solicit a yes or no answer, as opposed to open "wh" questions. For example :

"Are you coming to the party next week?"

is a "yes-no" question, whereas

"Where are you going for your summer holidays this year?"

is an open "wh" question. ("wh" stands for the interrogative words when, why, where, who, which, what and how.)

"Yes-No" questions

These questions are pronounced with rising intonation. The main intonation movement takes place on the stressed syllable of the last "important" word of the question (which I will refer to from now on as the "nuclear" syllable). Stressed syllables coming before the nuclear syllable may be pronounced at a high or low level according to factors such as the degree of interest, urgency or involvement the speaker wishes to express. Unstressed syllables before them will be pronounced at a low level. Note, however, that, unlike statements, stressed syllables following the nuclear syllable continue the rising intonation pattern. Let's take an example. You want to know whether your friend Fred is coming to the party on Saturday. The "important" word is "party", the nuclear syllable is "par". It is on this syllable that the rising intonation tune will begin, and it will continue until the end of the sentence.

Are you coming to the party on Saturday, Fred ?

Some more examples:

1 Does this train go to Farnham, please?

2 Is it interesting?

3 Are you serious?

4 Is there nothing we can do?

Note that some utterances which might at first sight appear to be questions are in fact something else - commands, for instance. Let's look at an example. "Will you be quiet?" has all the hallmarks of a question. There is inversion of the verb and its subject, and there may be a question mark. However it is clearly not intended as a question, but rather as a form of command. The required response is not so much "yes" or "no", as obedience - silence. The appropriate intonation is falling intonation.

"Wh" questions

Unlike "yes-no" questions, "wh" questions are pronounced with falling intonation. This is perhaps because the presence of an interrogative (wh-) word already identifies the utterance as a question. Alternatively you could consider that a "wh" question is a statement with an explicit "question mark" in place of one of the elements of the statement. Consider for example :

John is vice-president of the debating society.

The falling tune occurs on the nuclear syllable (in bold). If you don't know who is vice-president, you replace the word John with the word "who". This "wh" question is pronounced in the same way as the statement above:

Who is vice-president of the debating society?

Here are some more examples. The nuclear syllable is in bold type :

1 When is the next bus to Dover?

2 What are you going to do about it?

3 Why did you have to tell them?

4 What's on at the cinema this evening?

5 Who's going to drive tonight?

6 Why didn't you say so?

7 What is the capital of California?

8 Where are you going?

Note that there is one particular type of "wh" question which does not behave in this way, and that is the sort of "wh" question which expresses surprise and requests confirmation. This is the kind of "wh" question in which the interrogative word is the "most important word", and hence the nuclear syllable. It is often underlined in written transcriptions of dialogue.Consider the same sentence as above. Imagine you have just been told that John is vice-president of the debating society and that you are surprised at the choice. You express your surprise and ask for confirmation:

Who is president of the debating society?

This has the same sort of intonation as "yes-no" questions, with a rising tune on the nuclear syllable (who) followed by a steady continuation of this rising intonation until the end of the utterance.

Here are some more examples of this type of sentence. Once again, the nuclear syllable is in bold type :

1 When did you say he was coming?

2 Who did you say you saw yesterday?

3 What did he say?

4 Where did he go?

5 Who did he marry?

Question tags

Some question tags are real questions, others are simply invitations to continue the conversation. Imagine you are with a friend, and that you are both looking out of the window. It is a beautiful, warm, sunny day. You say : "It's a lovely day, isn't it?". The question tag is not a question, but rather an invitation from some further comment from your friend. That is why the tag is pronounced with a falling intonation pattern. You know it's a lovely day, and you know your friend knows it's a lovely day. When you say "It's a lovely day, isn't it?", you expect your friend to say, "Yes it is, beautiful!" or something like that.

Now imagine that you are talking about the company you used to work for. You think that the head office is now in London, but you're not really sure. You might say :

"The head office is in London now, isn't it?"

with rising intonation. Your friend will reply something like :

"Yes, that's right" or "No, it's in Paris". In other words, the question tag corresponds to a genuine request for either confirmation or correction, and so it is pronounced with a rising tune.

Now, here are some examples of the first type of question tag. You are pretty sure of what you are saying, but you are simply inviting some kind of comment. You therefore use a falling intonation:

1 You've got it wrong, haven't you?

2 She's pretty, isn't she?

3 You're French, aren't you?

4 He's nice, isn't he?

5 It's going to rain, isn't it?

Here are the same sentences again. This time, however, you are not quite so sure of what you are saying, and though you expect agreement, you would not be unduly surprised if the answer was no. The question tag is pronounced with rising intonation.

1 You've got it wrong, haven't you?

2 She's pretty, isn't she? (i.e. somebody you may have heard about rather vaguely, but whom you have never actually seen)

3 You're French, aren't you?

4 He's nice, isn't he?

5 It's going to rain, isn't it? (i.e. You are not very good at forecasting the weather)

Before we go on to look at the way intonation is used to express the speaker's attitude, I think it would be useful to look at these sentences in somewhat greater detail to see how the intonation tunes are actually realized.

The nuclear syllable

The main movement of the intonation tune centres on the "nuclear" syllable. The nuclear syllable is the stressed syllable of the last accented word in the "information unit". The most likely nuclear syllable has been written in bold type in the examples below. But what about the rest of the sentence? Let's look at an example in more detail. Take the sentence, "That's what everybody thinks." We can identify it as a statement, and therefore choose falling intonation. Except for specific meanings, such as, for example, "That's what everybody thinks, yes, but not what they say.", it will be the word "everybody" which is the most important. To make things even clearer, here is a possible context :

- I think John was right to have done what he did.

- That's what everybody thinks.

- Does that mean you don't agree?

- Well, I'm not really very sure ...

It is clear that in this context the "thinking" refers to an issue that has already been brought up (i.e. the proposition that John was right etc). In pronouncing the sentence used in the example the speaker is adding the idea of "everybody". That is why "everybody" is the accented word, and not "thinks".

So what happens to "thinks"? Consider what happens before the nucleus and after the nucleus.

Before the nucleus - "Head" and "pre-head"

"The head begins with the stressed syllable of the first accented word (before the nucleus); the pre-head consists of any syllables before the stressed syllable of the first accented word."[5]

After the nucleus - "Tail"

" all syllables following the nucleus are called the tail [...] there can be no accented word in the tail, though there may be stressed words in it ..."[6]

In statements, the head is normally pronounced on a high level, the pre-head and tail on a low level.

(1) -

Let's go on to another example. This time it's a "yes-no" question, and so the intonation pattern is a rising tune.

Are you going to the carnival tomorrow?

In one plausible pronunciation, the head begins with "you" (and continues with the syllable "go" of "going". "The" is a pre-head. The syllables following the nucleus "car" constitute the tail. Pre-head and head behave very similarly in both "yes-no" questions and statements. The tail, however, behaves quite differently. Whereas in statements the tail is pronounced at a uniformly low pitch, in rising intonation patterns the tail continues the rising tune.

(2) -

Here is another sentence, which is a fairly straightforward "wh" question:

(3) -

This next sentence is a request for confirmation with stress on the "wh" word (i.e. in a context where the fact that "he has told you something" has already been introduced into the discourse:

(4) -


Broadly speaking, falling intonation suggests some kind of finality or completeness. That is why it is appropriate to statements, and also to "wh" questions, which, as I suggested earlier, might usefully be thought of as "statements of questions", in that the item you want information about is explicitly replaced by a "wh" word. To a certain extent you are stating your request for information. Falling intonation is by far the most frequent tune in English, accounting for over 50% of all the "information units" in a corpus of British English[7]

Rising information, on the other hand,  suggests that there is something "non-final", incomplete, or "open" about the utterance. This of course is why it is appropriate for "yes-no" questions, and for "wh" questions seeking confirmation.

Rising intonation might also be used to make a statement and at the same time encourage a response. For example "It's a beautiful day today" with rising intonation suggests something similar to the same sentence with a question tag with falling intonation : "It's a beautiful day today, isn't it". It might also sound wistful and dreamy - in fact it might suggest a number of "non-final" meanings.

(5) -

Rising intonation can also make a command sound rather less imperious, more friendly, perhaps more persuasive.

(6) -

 (7) -

Similarly, an apparently "yes-no" question pronounced with falling intonation may not in fact be a question at all, but a command with a touch of irritation - and a command that demands to be taken seriously. For example:

(8) -

Another important factor is the range of pitch through which the voice moves in an utterance. As a general rule, the greater the range of pitch, the greater the emotion the speaker conveys. It is worth recalling that the range of pitch employed by English speakers is often considerable. It is important to get this right, as inaccurate intonation could give a very misleading impression. Take, for example, a dialogue such as :

A - Well, did you enjoy the party last night?

B - Oh yes, it was wonderful!

If speaker B is (or at least, wishes to sound) sincere, the falling intonation pattern in the information group "it was wonderful" will take place over a wide pitch range :

(9) -

A much smaller degree of pitch variation could make the same utterance sound insolently sarcastic.

Here are some more examples:

1 There was a photographer at the corner of  the street.

2 That would be far too simple a view.

3 This is profoundly encouraging.

4 I saw him yesterday.

5 There's a man at the door.

Here are some more sentences. The beginning of the "head" is marked with an apostrophe ( ' ) and the nuclear syllable is in bold type.:

1 Is 'John going to the dance tomorrow?

2 Do you 'think it will work?

3 Is there 'anyone there?

4 Are you 'sure it's right?

5 Is 'that Mr Burnett?

6 'When do you think it'll be ready?

7 'Why did he do it?

8 So 'what do we do now?

9 'Where are my trousers?

10 'When's the next bus to town?

(expressing surprise, seeking confirmation :)

11 When's the next bus to town?

12 Who did you say is coming?

13 Where are my trousers? (In the fridge?)


Fall-rise intonation pattern

We  have looked briefly at how intonation can be used to express the speaker's attitude. I would now like to turn to another intonation pattern, the "fall-rise". Though it is much less common than the falling and rising tunes, it is nonetheless an important pattern.

In fact there are two related intonation patterns which I want to look at here. The first is the "fall-rise", the second the "fall plus rise". These two tunes are used in approximately 15% of utterances (Gimson).

Let's look at fall-rise intonation first. This intonation pattern is used to draw particular attention to an element of the utterance, often to suggest a possible contrast. Here is an example. The sentence in brackets is there to provide a context. The fall-rise tune is on "can" :

(Will you come round for a drink before you leave?) I will if I can.

The suggestion here is "I would like to come and will do my best, but I can't promise anything because I might not be able to", or something like that. Here's another example.

(Was John at the meeting last week?) I think so.

The suggestion here is "I think he was but I'm not entirely sure".

And here's another example with a slightly different meaning :

(I though John's family were very nice people, didn't you?) Well, I liked his sister.

The suggestion being that the rest of John's family didn't make such a favourable impression ... You can also use this tune when you need to contradict somebody.

(You didn't do the washing up last night!) I did!

You can also use it when giving warnings, such as :

Careful! You'll miss your train.

Now, look at how this tune can be applied to one single word :

or over a group of words :

Now, here are some examples.

Will you have lunch with me tomorrow? - I will if I can.

John never watches television. - No, but Clare does!

I'll see you at the match on Wednesday. - Thursday.

The people here are very friendly. - Some of them are.

What a nice man he is! - Nice (You can't be serious - he's a thoroughly nasty piece of work!)

Can I come and get my books tomorrow? - You can come. (But I can't give you the books; I'm afraid I've lost them!)

Can I come to the party with Arthur? - You can come. (But I don't want that lout Arthur in my house.)

Do I have to take my driving licence with me? - You don't have to. (But it would be better if you did.)

What else did you expect him to do? - I suppose he didn't have any choice. (But I am only prepared to admit it grudgingly and reluctantly, and I'm still not entirely convinced there was no alternative.)

"Fall plus rise" intonation pattern

This pattern is used in information groups with two related centres of interest. The first of the two is usually the more important. Here is an example :

(Why don't you phone headquarters?) - I've already tried that.

(I talked to him about it over a game of chess) - I didn't know you played chess.

(I thought she looked happy tonight) - She seemed unhappy to me

The third example is taken from QUIRK et al. This is how he explains the use of the fall-plus-rise tune in this sentence :

"Here  the two nuclei enable us to say (a) that she seemed unhappy (contrary to the suggestion of someone else), and (b) that this is the speaker's personal view : of course there may be others."[8]

Here are some examples:

I thought she looked happy tonight. - She looked unhappy to me.

I talked to him about it over a game of chess.- I didn't know you played chess.

Everybody thinks she's marvellous. - Well I don't think so.

Which one should I take? - Well this one's the best.

Maybe you misunderstood him. - No, I'm sure he said six.

It's a pretty complex system. - Oh, it looks simple to me.

At last! - I told you I was going to be late.

I gather you didn't quite follow. - Well it's the conclusion I didn't understand.

I hear he's unhappy about the project. - It's the cost he's bothered about.

[To be continued ...]

[1]This example is taken from a lecture I attended years ago in Paris given by Professor GIMSON.

[2] hereafter "he" will be taken to mean "he or she" and "she" to mean "she or he".

[3]GIMSON, p148

[4]QUIRK et al. - A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. - p1589

[5]O'CONNOR & ARNOLD, Intonation of Colloquial English, 1973, p17

[6]ibid, p15

[7]QUIRK et al, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, p1602

[8]QUIRK et al,  A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, 1985, p1601