Go With The Flow

Intonation is a topic that many of my students love to cover. Once we’ve drilled some consonants and straightened out some vowel sounds, they love to try out the different inflections and sounds in my intonation books.

One of them, written by Thomson in the 1960s, is fabulous for it’s archetypal characters and relationships. There’s a stereotypical male boss who often speaks to his stereotypical female secretary throughout the book. Miss Rokes and Mr Watson are a great couple to work with as they always raise a smile.

Have a look at this excerpt. Poor old Mr W can’t retain a single piece of information his efficient secretary gives him. Perhaps he had too much brandy last night, or was a little late at the golf course before work, but he is struggling. The blue line ABOVE the word indicates a higher pitch of voice. The blue line THROUGH the word indicates a neutral pitch. The blue line swooping DOWN means the pitch sinks down lower as you talk. At first it is strange but with practice, you can analyse the ups and downs of the English language with ease.

mr w and miss r

Poor old Mr W. Miss Rokes is your standard tea-making, note-taking, advice-giving secretary. Mr W is hapless, gruff and ever-so-slightly disorganised. They’re a charming, old-fashioned pair.

That section is about asking and answering questions. Mr W’s questions end on an upward inflection, which most people associate with the questioning style, but actually the reverse is normally always true.

Check out these questions and try reading them with a rise in inflection at the end, then with a sinking inflection:

  1. How many films have you appeared in?
  2. Why does everyone always ask me that?
  3. What’s the title of your next film?
  4. Who’s asking the questions?

Which sounded better? Upwards or downwards inflection at the end? You should find that the downward inflection makes more sense in this case.


The strong ‘fall’ in inflection occurs at the strongest content word of the question. We, generally, do this naturally, but it’s worth having a discrete practice.