Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Importance of Intonation and Stress

When we do public speaking, intonation and sentence stress are important. 

Intonation is the sound changes produced by the rise and fall of the voice when speaking, especially when this has an effect on the meaning of what is said.

And stress refers to an increased loudness for a syllable in a word or for a word in a phrase, sentence, or even question. 

Intonation and stress are important because they assist in communicating additional meaning to an utterance. It helps to strengthen a specific meaning, attitude, or emotion in an utterance. 

You should know that English is known as a stress-timed language. In other words, some words in a sentence are emphasised when speaking. This gives English its rhythm while also letting others know which words are important. 

Without sentence stress, you’ll find that your spoken English may sound forced or unnatural. E.g. In a sentence like “I’m learning to play the violin”, a native speaker might emphasize the words learning, play, and violin. Meanwhile, the words I’m, to, and the, are spoken more softly or rushed – referred to as unstressed words – because the listener is likely to understand the content of the sentence without them. 

It is equally important to point out that sentence stress can change. In fact, you can choose where to place the stress. It depends on what you’re trying to highlight. 

Stressing a different word can change the meaning. 

1. I love your mother’s cooking. 

2. I love your mother’s cooking. 

3. I love your mother’s cooking. 

4. I love your mother’s cooking. 

5. I love your mother’s cooking. 

Note: Stressed words in italics. 



Author CS Ratliff shows how the sentence "I never said we should kill him" can take on seven different meanings by emphasizing one word or another.

Suggestion: I propose you say it out LOUD for good effect: 

1. I didn’t say we should kill him = Someone else said we should kill him/Perhaps no one said it. But I certainly didn't, so don't go blaming me. I didn't say we should kill him: People think I gave the order, but I want to emphasize I didn't. Possibly. It's more likely that I did say something, but I didn't say this. 

2. I didn’t say we should kill him = I am denying saying it. 

3. I didn’t say we should kill him = I merely implied it. 

4. I didn’t say we should kill him = I said someone else should kill him/you should kill him, etc. 

5. I didn’t say we should kill him = Perhaps I talked about killing him as a hypothetical thing to do, but I never said we ought to do it/I said we shouldn’t kill him/we must kill him, etc. 

6. I didn’t say we should kill him = Perhaps I said he should only get a beating or something like that. Though I might not have placed any limits on what we did – “We should punish him" or "We should take our revenge", for example. 

7. I didn’t say we should kill him = We should kill someone else. 

Knowing which words to stress depends on the meaning, context and what you and your listener already knows (shared knowledge). 

Once you understand the way stress can change your sentences, you’ll find that you have a bit more control and freedom when you want to express yourself in English.

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