Who Stole the Money? A Brief Lesson in English Intonation

I didn’t say he stole the money.

I didn’t say he stole the money.

I didn’t say he stole the money.


I didn’t say he stole the money.

I didn’t say he stole the money.

I didn’t say he stole the money.

I didn’t say he stole the money.

Which one of these sentences means “I think someone else stole the money?” Not sure? OK. Which sentence implies that I merely suggested that he stole the money? Still don’t know? How is it possible that the exact same sentences with the exact same words can have completely different meanings? Welcome to the wonderful world of English intonation, yet another obstacle that ESL learners face once they are able to construct sentences. Without intonation, we would be completely lost while speaking to each other. Look at the sentences again. Pretend you have just been confronted by an acquaintance who thinks that you told someone that another male acquaintance stole some money. You know you didn’t tell and are shocked that this person would even suggest such an atrocity. Which word in the sentence do you put the emphasis on? If you put the emphasis on the wrong word, you could get into a lot of trouble. Look again at the sentences and the meanings that follow.

I didn’t say he stole the money, someone else said it.

I didn’t say he stole the money, that’s not true at all.

I didn’t say he stole the money, I only suggested the possibility.

I didn’t say he stole the money, I think someone else took it.

I didn’t say he stole the money, maybe he just borrowed it.

I didn’t say he stole the money, but rather some other money.

I didn’t say he stole the money, he may have taken some jewelry.

Now do you know? It is the first sentence. When you put the emphasis on the I, it is implicit that you are saying that you absolutely did not say that he stole the money, but that someone else did. Interesting, right?

Word intonation in English is difficult for some English learners, especially learners from China and other Asian countries where the languages are tone languages, meaning that they use the pitch (highness or lowness) of a phoneme sound to distinguish word meaning. In English, changes in pitch are used to emphasize or express emotion, not to give a different word meaning to the sound. So, for a student from China or Japan, the above sentences are indistinguishable until the student learns to listen for different pitches in speech. There are many aspects involving intonation in the English language and it is a good idea to learn them.

One such aspect in intonation is called “listing.” Listing is when more than one item in a list has a rising intonation except for the very last item. In English, a person may say, “today I have to go to the store, go to the library, feed my dog, practice English, and go to bed.” All but “go to bed” are going to have a rising intonation. If you are telling someone what you have to do today and you forget to put a falling intonation on the last item, the listener will be looking at you like they are waiting for more things on the list, and may even ask you, “Yes? And what else?” It is the falling tone that lets the listener know you are finished with the list. Native English speakers don’t think twice about this and most native speakers probably don’t even know that the falling intonation of the last item in a list is something that is a part of English intonation rules. It is really only we ESL teachers that ever even realize all of these intonation patterns, solely because we need to teach them. How often do you think of the intonation patterns in your own language? Not that often, if ever, right? But since English has so many of these little quirks in pitch and intonation, it is important to know the rules so as to be able to convey emotions when you speak and to not sound like a robot.

Take for example the word really, perhaps one of the most common words used in everyday English. Depending on how you say it and with what pitch, it can convey completely different emotions. Really can convey that you disapprove of something if you give it a falling intonation. It can convey you are surprised and curious by giving it a rising intonation. It can signify extreme happiness and surprise with even more of an upward pitch change, or it can convey that you are not very interested by giving it a flat, falling intonation. Four different emotions are expressed using the same word but with different intonation. If a friend tells you that she is getting married and your intonation is flat and falling, she might get upset that you have not expressed interest in her upcoming nuptials. On the contrary, if she tells you that she is getting divorced and you use the “happy” pitch, you are going to have even more problems with your friend. Listening to people talk in real life situations is the best practice, or reading a script that has many different emotions can also help guide you.

In conclusion, intonation in English can be compared with a tune in music. It can go upwards or downwards. In English, the sentence intonation often indicates the mood of the speaker. Different tunes on the same word or phrase can send different messages about the speaker’s feelings. Intonation can express practically every emotion from happiness to sarcasm. It is up to you to practice and listen to how natives speak and where to put the different pitches depending on the situation. You will probably make many mistakes along the way, use the wrong pitch or no pitch at all, but mistakes are a part of learning. One of the best books to help with the minutia is American Accent Training. This book has it all. It even comes with a mirror so you can watch yourself as you speak along with the included CD’s. After practicing over and over,  you will being to have confidence to definitely be able to convey who you think stole the money!






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