English Intonation Examples

English intonation examples – introduction

This article take a light-hearted look at some fun English intonation examples.

This English intonation examples video is based on this post and is here for those who prefer to see a video.

What is intonation?

English Intonation Examples - business english success - melody

As in music, intonation is the melody, the way in which the tone varies in pitch and the way in which certain words or syllables are stressed or emphasised.

As a quick introductory example, think of the word ‘hello’. There are various different ways in which this one word can be spoken.

Think of how you would say this word when:

  • greeting your boss
  • greeting your best friend
  • answering the phone
  • approaching an attractive (wo)man you don’t know
  • talking to a small baby

By all means say these out loud, so that the differences are really clear.

You can drastically change the meaning of a whole sentence with this method.

Here are a few fun English intonation examples.

Emphasising a different word in a sentence

English Intonation Examples - business english success

If we saw the sentence “I didn’t say you stole my money” in an email, how would you understand it?

Believe it or not, this sentence can have seven different meanings, based on the intonation. I’ll indicate the stressed word by bold italics.

  • I didn’t say you stole my money. (someone else said it)
  • I didn’t say you stole my money. (emphasises the negative)
  • I didn’t say you stole my money. (you stole it, I just didn’t actually say it)
  • I didn’t say you stole my money. (someone else stole it)
  • I didn’t say you stole my money. (didn’t steal my money, but you do have it)
  • I didn’t say you stole my money. (you stole someone else’s money)
  • I didn’t say you stole my money. (you stole something else of mine)

On a serious note (my apologies), this does show how easy it is to misunderstand written communication. It is worth taking the time to make sure that the reader will understand what you write in the way you meant it. That was enough serious stuff …

Which version do you think Merkel is saying to Putin? 🙂

You can try a similar exercise yourself with these sentences:

  • “She isn’t driving to London today.”
  • “He didn’t tell you to fight him.” (emphasising the word ‘to’ is not necessary)
  • “I didn’t shoot him yesterday.”

English Intonation Examples - business english success - reallyOne word, a thousand meanings

At the start of this post, we looked at the word ‘hello’. There is another single word that has many meanings and it’s the word ‘really’.

This has a very broad spectrum of meaning, ranging from “That’s most interesting, please carry on” all the way over to “That’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard”.

Imagine a teenage girl saying this is a bored, drawn out, eye-rolling way and you’ll get some idea of the power of one word, given the right intonation.

Wonderful film example

Lastly, there is a very underrated file, namely The 51st State, which came out in 2001.

There are a few ‘adult’ words in the clip (well, the whole film really), so if you prefer not to hear such language, it’s probably best if you skip it.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there is a really funny scene in which subtle intonation differences have harsh consequences for an unfortunate chemist by the name of Lawrence.

The first minute of the following clip shows this.

Did you get the phrase that was causing the problem? Can you spot the intonation difference?

The film is worth watching in its entirety. It shows a side of English culture that is not usually seen.

English intonation examples – summary

Without intonation, speech would be very dull and (literally) monotonous. Even in the early stages of learning a new language, try not to neglect this important aspect.

It might even keep you out of jail and help you avoid telling the policeman “I didn’t burn down that house” 😮

Have you had unexpected problems with emphasis or intonation?

Please tell us about it in the comments below.

6 thoughts on “English Intonation Examples”

  1. I have heard about intonation before and also have seen a similar example of the same sentence but emphasised differently. But that was a long time ago, but I was still intrigued by this whole post. It will take me a while to get my head around that if I’m honest.

    I have always noticed this when talking to people, especially the word “really”, which you mentioned in your post. It does make English more interesting as you say. I hadn’t thought about that before.

    1. Hi Owain,
      Thanks for your comments. Language is a fascinating subject. To be honest, I wish I’d paid more attention at school – but I guess a lot of people say that.

  2. Unbelievable..“I didn’t say you stole my money” has so many meanings. It’s true, when somebody is writing an email, or a long sms text on a smart phone, the receiver of the that message on the other side could understand a totally different meaning.

    The difference between a live conversation versus a text communication could be chaotic nowadays, especially between politicians 😉

    1. Hi Alex,
      Thanks for commenting. Yes, there is a real danger of misunderstanding and when you take culture into account as well (emails between speakers of different languages, for example), it just gets worse.
      I’m sure it’s better when politicians talk to each other, but there are days when I have my doubts …

  3. MarieAnne, Linda Cooke

    This is great. My hubby and i always talk this way to each other. Language, like you said along with body language has many different meanings. Thank you for this clarity. I learned something new today..

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