The Teaching of English Intonation

This is a slightly modified and extended version of an article that first appeared in 
 Studies in General and English Phonetics  (1995 edited by the present writer)
 published by Routledge: London

1. The term intonation is difficult to delimit precisely but its narrowest sense of the melodic aspect of the language, excluding the question of which syllables may be stressed and which not in words or higher linguistic units, is the one intended here. Admittedly most writers on English intonation have treated "sentence stress" as part of intonation including Jones, Kingdon, O’Connor-&-Arnold and Halliday. The problem of accentuation, chiefly of tonic placement (alternatively called 'tonicity') is a very great one, probably responsible for as many serious failures in EFL performance as any other feature of English. However, some teachers seem to be under the mistaken impression that intonation proper (ie excluding tonicity) is an area of great difficulty or at least importance for them – as great as or even greater than tonicity.

2. One thing I should like to make completely clear is that my comments refer to EFL users' performance in unscripted spontaneous conversation and not to reading aloud from English literature or any other prescribed texts. This can be a much more difficult situation in which very many highly literate native speakers of English tend to perfom quite badly. Witness the notoriously poor performances of various highly regarded poets when they come to read aloud their own verses.

3. O’Connor-&-Arnold (1961, 1973, p.1) was right to say that the pitch patterns of another language ‘may sound wrong if they are applied to English’ but it is likely to induce unwarrantable apprehension to say that ‘they very often do’. More acceptable is the opinion that was expressed by the late A. C. Gimson in his Introductory Address to the first Leeds University International Conference on the Teaching of Spoken English in 1977 when he remarked

We mustn’t be led astray into thinking that every intonation pattern in English is different from every other intonation pattern in any other language ... I’ve heard in foreign countries teachers teaching an English intonation pattern which is identical with the intonation pattern for that type of sentence in the native language of the learners.

4. The O’Connor-&-Arnold suggestion that pitch-pattern forms and semantic effects of such forms in English bear a relationship to other languages which can properly be summarised by saying that there may be resemblances only here and there seemed excessively gloomy. One wonders also about its suggestion that native speakers of English are so much less able to make ... allowance for mistakenly used tunes than for imperfect sound-making. Such assertions have been made from time to time but, as they remain largely untested, it is questionable how far they are worth repeating. As Gimson (1977) again suggested There’s room for a study of the errors which people really make when they use the wrong intonation pattern. Do ordinary people notice these errors? How important are they from the point of view of meaning?

5. What is perhaps also relevant to the evaluation of pitch patterns as a subject for EFL practice is the attitude to wrong intonations observable when one of two mothertongue speakers (whether or not they have exactly the same type of accent) uses a wrong intonation. It is no very uncommon thing according to my observations for speakers (myself included) to experience a ‘slip of the tongue’ in which it is obvious that the wrong intonation, and nothing else inappropriate, has quite accidentally been employed. I have hardly ever in such circumstances heard any speakers correct themselves nor would I ever expect anyone to draw attention to the falseness of the tone choice of their interlocutor. Nor have I ever observed a grown-up correct a child’s intonation.

6. Yet another probable witness to the relative universality and essential simplicity of intonational features is the fact that, whereas accentuation (intentional, conscious word or syllable stressing) and segmental matters yield plentiful examples of social shibboleths in the southeast of England from which the most general British form of educated English speech has spread, there are virtually no other intonational features to be found there which are different in demotic usage in the same location from what they are in sophisticated speech. (One tentative suggestion of such a possibility was made in Windsor Lewis 1977 p.69.)

7. With the honoured exception of the late Roger Kingdon, who was responsible for so much of the best and most original pioneering work on English intonation, most writers in the EFL field have written about the most general kinds of usages of the south of England without so much as a sidelong glance at the other mother-tongue English speech communities. The often strikingly different intonational usages of a great many Irish and Scottish people in particular are far more removed from the Anglo-American mainstream than most EFL departures. And yet who would claim that Irish or Scottish pitch patterns in themselves have any serious effect on comprehensibility? In referring to the Anglo-American mainstream I have in mind the fact that the intonations employed by General American speakers correspond extensively to those used in most of southern England. As Gregory 1966 (p.1) observed no doubt overly cautiously of the two varieties, they ‘probably use the same intonation contours more frequently than different contours’. See also the admirable revision of Gimson's Introduction to the Pronunciation of English especially at 11.6.3 p.298 (2014) where the most respected living British authority on English intonation, Alan Cruttenden, comments on ‘Regional Variation in Intonation’.

8. A comforting counterbalance to the views mentioned above which seem to have worried many EFL teachers unduly, is the remark of Bolinger (1972 p. 315) that The general characteristics of intonation seem to be shared more broadly than those of any other phenomena commonly gathered under the label of 'language'. Research into the relative importance of pitch patterns to other linguistic features is very difficult to carry out so it is not surprising that little has been attempted. However, occasionally evidence presents itself fortuitously. I should like to mention two examples of this, both of which concern what tonologists seem to agree is one of the most fundamental semantic contrasts of the mainstream English intonation system, that between the Fall and the Fall-Rise.

9. On listening to the recordings accompanying Halliday 1970 one noticed without great surprise various differences between what was to be heard on the tape and what the transcriptions indicated. Another shrewd Gimson 1977 comment, by the way, was How often do we look at a notation which one of our respected colleagues has made and then check it against the actual recording and find there are great discrepancies? At any rate, at the “Spontaneous Monologue” Study Unit 35, in as many as five places within two dozen lines of text, the speaker (not Halliday himself) could be heard to use Falls in situations where one would have been inclined to predict that a person with his (General British) accent would favour Fall-Rises, as in “once a train gets into a section” and both halves of “much more fun than going up the M1 or the main line from King’s Cross”. Although the recording was a good one which was listened to with high-fidelity equipment, it was perfectly clear that the speaker’s falling tone each time was not followed by any rising one even though the transcription in each case wrongly represented the expected Fall-Rise tone as being used. Despite the relative unexpectedness of his tone choices, the speaker, one felt very clearly, did not sound at all unnatural.

10. The other illuminating unforeseen occurrence that I should like to mention happened on an occasion when I and my colleague Luke van Buuren were listening to a recording of Margaret Thatcher, with no particular attention to her intonations, for convenience through the quite low-fidelity built-in loudspeaker of a small cassette player. At a point where we decided that the loudspeaker’s quality was becoming a disadvantage,’we plugged in some high-quality headphones. We then detected in the phrase we were examining, much to our surprise, a perfectly clear not notably narrow but previously quite inaudible Rise immediately following a Fall which we had heard. The interesting evidence this constituted in relation to intonation semantics was that, heard either way, no difference of effect was felt. Things like this cause one to wonder whether the importance of mere pitch-direction contrasts on which so much of EFL attention to prosodic features has been focused is of less importance (always excepting tonicity matters) than other features that have had less attention.

11. The comments above from O’Connor-&-Arnold (1973) were quoted from it because it was at the time the best book of its kind yet to appear, containing as it did a very extensive and varied repertoire of authentic contemporary English expressions presented with intonations that were thoroughly appropriate and indicated in a generally excellent notation. It was an admirable set of texts for students to use for practice in acquiring English rhythms. But on the question of just how urgently the EFL teacher should apply himself to pitch patterns, if intonation errors were so frequent and so serious as such writers seemed to suggest, one would expect their books to abound in examples of pitch-pattern blunders.

12. Yet in that work (at p. 2) as also in O’Connor 1980 (at p.108) only one and the same single illustration was offered, the ‘danger’ that the phrase Thank you may be made to give a rather casual impression when a genuinely grateful one is called for (by substitution of a low-to-high tone for the required high-to-low type, as the 1980 text alone made clear). I find myself unable to recall actually encountering any instance of this kind of blunder. The occasions of unease I can attest to regarding Thank you in terms of its pitch values have related to disagreeably narrow pitch movement and seem to have been experienced at least as often from native speakers of English as from EFL users! Incidentally, the authors of Intonation of Colloquial English never sought to produce any new edition of that work after 1973. J. D. O’Connor in a personal communication to the present writer of 16 Dec 94 remarked on his dissatisfaction with the attitudinal matter in it. It has now long been out of print (except in Japan).

13. An examination of the literature of advice on EFL intonation reveals astonishingly few specific examples of observed errors attributed to EFL speakers with particular mother tongues. Tonicity aside, there are none at all in Palmer (1922), Armstrong and Ward (1926), Halliday (1970), O’Connor-&-Arnold (1973) or Gimson (1980). The last of these (at p. 282) gave general warnings against unintentional impressions that might result from an over-use of rises or from too many falls but offered no illustrations of the possibilities even though attention was drawn later (at p. 315), perhaps puzzlingly to many readers, to the necessity for the ambitious student to note that frequent use of falls on pre-nuclear accented syllables is a common feature of natural discourse. Gimson 1980 (pp 305 & 307) clearly excluded intonation, accentuation patterning aside, from those characteristics of pronunciation which ... constitute a priority for the great majority of learners.

14. The most important reason why specific national etc problems are so rarely to be found dealt with is largely the rather heartening one that there are indeed very few of them. The first book ever to mention any was the Daniel Jones Outline of English Phonetics which in 1918 at paragraphs 742 and those following cited (after eight French mis-accentuations and five German ones) an example of a German use of rise instead of normal level and a Swedish transfer of a falling tone which, though non-accentual in Swedish would strike English ears as a false accentuation (eg of the second syllable of London as well as the first). The 1932 revision added a second German problem of substituting high-level for low-rise tones within complex sentences and the Norwegian one of substituting rising for what in English usage would be final (and pre-final) descending tones. The only other point made was that most learners find great difficulty in learning to make a fall-rise on a word of a single syllable.

15. From this sparse collection of only five items in 1932 Jones wisely removed the Swedish one which is such a gross error that Swedes very rarely ever commit it. It didn’t feature in Windsor Lewis 1969 pp 68-71 where, about all three Scandinavian languages, barely a dozen points could be made and some of them assigned to restricted areas. See also my phonetiblog #014 of the 19th of January 2007. There was, at the end of Kingdon’s important Groundwork of English Intonation, a section on 'Comparative Tonetics' which made various valuable specific mentions of intonation transfers into English and offered a number of hints at other possibilities in sketching some of the intonation characteristics of other languages. The points included the essentially accentual one regarding the Spanish habit of incorporating end-adverbials in the main tune, the common (eg German, French and Swedish) tendency to ask question-word questions with high rising tone, the Hindi use of rising-falling tones more than would be normal in General British usage and two structural points about the Swedish low-rising and falling-rising tone types.

16. Crystal 1975 reported an interesting comparison of Brazilian Portuguese intonational habits with English ones in regard to a dozen sentence types with closely parallel grammatical structures in the two languages. This included references to rhythmic and pitch-range variations of tones, tone selection in specific situations and in quantitative terms, and various tone distribution points concerning rising tails, vocatives, final and initial adverbials, initial noun, appositional subordinate and final-comment clauses (again essentially accentual matters in various cases).

17. Undoubtedly, as this last list illustrates, some of the lack of treatment of intonation problems is simply due to neglect of the topic, but much of that neglect stems from the relative triviality of the problems. Intonation simply doesn’t really seem to cause many misunderstandings. There is also the fact that, even without special instruction, many of the problems that might be expected do not materialise or do so only to a negligible extent. We have mentioned the example of the very rare transfer of the Swedish double-fall tone into Swedish-speakers’ English. Another example is Finnish speakers’ great success with employing a low-rise tone type which is apparently quite absent from their native set of tones. Even speakers of the most complex tone languages like Cantonese seem to find that their pattern of fixed-pitch syllables on the whole ... does not make English intonation more difficult [for them] than it is for speakers of other languages. One finds this comment of O’Connor 1980 (p 141) closer to one's own impressions than the Gimson 1980 (p. 320) suggestion that learners whose mother tongue is a tone language may find the concept of intonation’s functions as they occur in English.....entirely novel. Though the warning there of care to be taken by those whose native language makes use of such devices as particles for signalling questions, without any significant pitch variation is a useful one.

18. What then, if one can find little or nothing in the way of advice on the problems of one’s particular pupils, is the teacher to do about intonation? It of course very much depends on the level of achievement of pupils, but one should certainly ignore the alarmist cries of some of the theorists. Most of what pupils are likely to do which is different in pitch-patterning from the usage of English mother-tongue speakers is likely only to be trivially so compared with many matters of sound-making, tonicity, rhythm, lexis and grammar. If teachers wish to take up the study of English intonation for their own satisfaction and/or because they deal with pupils of very high achievement, they will find most practically valuable the study of Kingdon 1958 and O’Connor and Arnold 1973, perhaps beginning with O’Connor 1980. They can extend this knowledge by looking also at other treatments (eg Windsor Lewis 1969, Halliday 1970) but especially first to the two O’Connor phonetic readers and then perhaps to Windsor Lewis 1979 and Crystal and Davy 1975. [Since the above was written J. C. Wells has published a very valuable addition to the literature in his English Intonation of 2006.]

19. If they look at Brazil et al. 1980, which was purportedly directed especially to the EFL audience, they may well be attracted by its emphatic claims to novelty but they should be warned of its many flaws. It and its accompanying tape recording contained an astonishing quantity of discrepancies many of them making nonsense of the text. Where it was genuinely at variance with more traditional analyses in matter rather than merely in choice of terminology etc, its claims must be treated with great caution. It offered nothing in the way of detailed consideration of what does go wrong with actual EFL use of English intonation. An extended review of it may be seen in Windsor Lewis 1986 reproduced on this website as Item 12.7.

20. What teachers need to be able to do is to recognise readily and demonstrate clearly the half-dozen most basic English tones, high and low rises and falls, high level and the high-fall-low-rise, the latter even on a monosyllabic word. They should not be discouraged if they find identification of many tones baffling in ordinary speech. It is in the nature of much intonation to be highly imprecise. Some basic ear training should help avoid making common mistakes like imagining that a high-beginning full fall is an ascending tone because the movement down is over before its "musical" nature can be recognised. One should not be too concerned to attempt to attach precise meanings to tonal movements. The simple ones are more or less universal in their semantic values. It is enough to recognise the implicatory value of the English Fall-Rise. Various tone sequences may be learnt, as idioms are learnt, or in the way a word’s phonemic make-up is learnt in addition to its spelling.

21. O’Connor-&-Arnold 1973, although the best work of its kind to appear up to that date and excellent material for high-achievement students, went in its complexity far beyond what most teachers need as a basis. Its treatment of meaning, in spite of many excellences, has rightly been questioned especially in regard to its over-specific tone sense ascriptions. Its notation is excessively complex for ordinary purposes and yet does not provide for many tonal phenomena that students will be frequently hearing. Perfectly adequately natural English intonation can be prescribed for almost all ordinary spoken English sentences with the use of only the half-dozen tones mentioned above. Their rise-fall tone, though one among several such types commonly used by native speakers, is a difficult luxury in terms of what learners need actively to use. They delimited intonation units with excessive elaborateness and made stress and accent distinctions of doubtfully useful subtlety for all but the most advanced users – who will find much to question in it anyway.

22. The most effective way of identifying idiomatic uses of intonations is broadly to relate them to syntactic units. The most fruitful generalisations are those quite simple ones that can be made about different kinds of questions, commands, statements etc, as Henry Sweet showed over a hundred years ago. The refinements upon this basis made in Kingdon (1958a) and in O’Connor-&-Arnold are among the most commendable reading on tone semantics. Many have been all too inclined to overlook the fact that both of these books were offered to the EFL public as demonstrations of what are typical idiomatic uses of intonation of the most general types to be heard in England. As such they were unimpeachable yet critics have persisted in referring to them as if they were primarily analytical works when their clearly avowed intentions were prescriptive. If, as was suggested in Windsor Lewis 1971 (p 78), O’Connor-&-Arnold could have ratcheted its wording just one notch away from talking about what intonations ‘convey’ to claiming only to identify what they may correlate with, this ‘essentially practical text-book...for the foreign learner’ might have been spared much of the criticism levelled at it. 

23. Those who in their study and practice of English intonation are so ambitious as to aspire to native-like performance, perhaps especially in drama or the reading aloud of literature, will find most practically valuable the study of Kingdon 1958 a and b. They can extend this knowledge most effectively by looking at Wells 2006 and also at some phonetic readers as for example O’Connor 1971, Crystal and Davy 1975 and Windsor Lewis 1979. They should be warned or perhaps encouraged, by noting that it is only the fairly exceptional native English speaker who has the ability to consistently produce the most thoroughly appropriate intonations in reading aloud.

24. Subsequent to the work of Kingdon and O’Connor-&-Arnold, Halliday 1970 dazzled many by its brilliant but too arbitrary and not really well thought out handling of the subject. Cf Tench 1995. In addition to the texts recommended above, two grammars are well worth noting viz the 1969 underrated re-working of Palmer’s Grammar of Spoken English by Kingdon and A Communicative Grammar of English by Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik 1975 which came very near to being adequate in its quite full intonation information using only four tonal distinctions. Quite a number of theoretical works on English intonation have appeared in recent years which have had no orientation towards and are not likely to be found to be of any help in the EFL world.

25. The problem with tone semantics is that tones have meanings so elemental – so vague if you like – that ordinary language lacks terms broad enough to convey them suitably. Tones are highly ambiguous but such differences as there are between them can, I have suggested (eg at Windsor Lewis 1977 p. 9), be captured by comparing them for just two elemental features — what I have come nearest to being able to specify as ‘animation’ and ‘continuity’. Anything more specific semantically seems doomed to futility. The upshot of this is that teachers should not waste time speculating on just what quota of meaning pitch features contribute to spoken English but should accept any intonations from their pupils in spontaneous speech that they do not find grossly unnatural.

26. What is perhaps desirable for teachers to be able to do is to recognise readily (when they are boldly made) and demonstrate clearly the half-dozen most basic English tones, high and low rises and falls, high level and the high-fall-low-rise (even when it occurs on a monosyllabic word). They should not expect that even a thorough knowledge of the tones prescribed in books like OKingdon’sConnor-&-Arnold will equip them to analyse the tonal performance of speakers they hear: again as Gimson (1977) commented People have accused O’Connor and Arnold of being over-complex although their [intonation notation] system is so simplified that we can’t use it with native speakers because native English speakers use tunes which don’t occur in the O’Connor and Arnold system. Even when it comes to tones included in O'Connor-&-Arnold, its rising-falling tone, for example, although very commonly used by many native speakers, is a difficult luxury in terms of what most learners need actively to use because no GB speaker ever has to use it. Kingdon showed very clearly that he recognised this in his arrangement of practice materials. Teachers, even those specialising in such matters, should not be discouraged if they find identification of many tones baffling in ordinary speech. It is natural for speakers’ intonational performances to be imprecise: so often, in fact, as their attitudes are less than clearcut .

27. If you’ve ever listened to something like the recording of an O'Connor-&-Arnold dialogue muffled for example by an intervening wall, you’ll know that it takes only seconds to realise when the prosodies alone can be detected that one is not hearing spontaneous conversation. Which was only as it should be. They sound reasonably ‘natural’ but genuinely spontaneous dialogue would make a very unsatisfactory and difficult model for an EFL student to set out to imitate.

28. It may be of interest that Windsor Lewis 1977 adopted a ‘fine’ tone notation (by contrast with the ‘coarse’ notation deliberately and wisely adopted by O’Connor-&-Arnold) because it was offered not simply as a practice book but equally as an expository reader. Many of the later items in it were never intended for wholesale imitation. Its fifty-thtee passages were graduated. They began with the kind of slightly wooden, dynamically very even, prosodies that actors perfectly understandably adopt for EFL dialogues. They know that total comprehensibility must take precedence over anything like naturalism in the ordinary run of such materials. In conducting the recording sessions I accepted this manner initially but subsequently asked for progressively greater realism. The last items in the book were a mixture of totally spontaneous monologues and extracts from the actors’ personal conversations recorded with their prior agreement but taking advantage of their forgetting the presence of a live microphone. Much more material was recorded than was ultimately used. Users of the book were meant to accept the challenge to see if they could detect when the transition came from the scripted to the unscripted matter. This represented a totally different aim from that of O’Connor-&-Arnold and so the finer notation was necessary. It was among the most detailed that have been used for any published collections of intonation-marked passages. The recordings on which Crystal 1969 and Crystal-&-Davy 1969 were based have never been published and Crystal-&-Davy 1975 used a fairly coarse notation.

29. In all probability the unease with intonation matters among many teachers of English as a foreign language is largely based on the failure to realise that, in spontaneous speech, even though the intonational choices they and their pupils may make will sometimes not be exactly the ones that native speakers of English would favour in the same linguistic situations yet they will generally be within the range of choices open to English-mother-tongue speakers. They should realise that they are able to circumvent the problem of producing purely English-language intonation usages because of the circumstance that many markedly different tonal strategies can arrive at the same semantic effects. Making a selection of tones based on the intonational choices they would have made had the utterance been couched in their native language, they will be usually very likely to produce intonations that give no difficulties of comprehension or of acceptability. They should take heart at the thought of the goodwill that mainstream native English speakers have no difficulty in exercising constantly in daily communication with the rich variety of other mother-tongue English speakers they may encounter.


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