Intonation is like the music of a language.
Intonation means the changes that someone makes to the sound of their voice when speaking.
The up and down movements in the voice can show meaning or emotion. These movements can also take the place of punctuation, such as commas or question marks.
Today on Everyday Grammar, we will explore the subject of intonation by using humor. We will show you how one comedian used intonation in ways that can teach you about American English and grammar.
The term rising intonation means the upward movement of the voice, often at the end of a sentence. In general, Americans use rising intonation in what we call “yes/no questions” -- questions that ask for either a “yes” or “no” answer. In some cases, these “yes/no questions” use auxiliary verbs, such as can or do, as in this example:
Do you know him?
One important point: in everyday or casual speech, Americans sometimes drop off – or leave out - the auxiliary verb do, as in:
D’you know him?
You know him?
Did you hear how the voice went up toward the end of the question?
That is rising intonation.
Let’s listen to part of a performance by the American comedian Dave Chappelle. Note how he uses rising intonation at the end of his “yes/no questions.” One quick note: Chappelle is mispronouncing the name of American actor Jussie Smollett on purpose. He refers to Smollett as “Juicy Somellier.”*
“Don’t ever forget what happened to that French actor
“You know who I’m talking about?
Note that Chappelle’s voice rose after the second line – You know who I’m talking about? This is a “yes/no question” that left out the auxiliary verb do.
The first line, a statement, has the opposite kind of intonation: falling intonation.
“Don’t ever forget what happened to that French actor”
Let’s listen to more from Chappelle’s performance:
Jussie Smollett - he’s very French, a very famous French actor...
Y’all never heard of Jussie Smollett?
In this “yes/no question,” Chappelle turns a statement into a question by changing the intonation of his voice. He also uses the informal structure y’all - which means “you all.”
Here is Chappelle’s question:
Y’all never heard of Jussie Smollett?
This is how Chappelle’s words would sound if they were presented as a statement:
You have never heard of Jussie Smollett.
Questions that are not Yes/No questions
You might be asking yourself about other kinds of questions: for example, questions that are not “yes/no questions.”
Such questions often have interrogatives – words such as what, why, when, or how.
Questions with interrogative words generally have falling intonation – the opposite of “yes/no questions.”
So, for example, if a person asked about who Dave Chappelle was making fun of, their question might sound like this:
Who is Jussie Smollett?
Or they might ask:
What is Dave Chappelle talking about?
The main idea of this story is that intonation plays an important role in showing meaning.
The next time you are listening to the news or watching a comedy show, ask yourself how the speaker is using intonation. Note the different kinds of intonation you hear – rising or falling.
Over time, you will begin to use intonation to show differences in meaning between statements, ”yes/no questions,” and other kinds of questions.
I’m John Russell.
John Russell wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
*This is a rough estimate of the name that Chappelle pronounced. It is not an exact spelling.
Words in This Story
punctuation – n. the marks in a piece of writing that make its meaning clear and that separate it into sentences or clauses
comedian – n. a person who makes people laugh by telling jokes or funny stories or by acting in a way that is funny
auxiliary verb – n. a verb used with another verb to how the verb’s tense or to form a question
mispronounce – v. to say or state (a word or name) incorrectly
refer – v. to direct attention to; to describe
informal – adj. casual; unceremonious
interrogative – n. a word used in questions
role – n. an actor’s part in a play or movie; a position or job