213: Wh- questions intonation


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy’s American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Amanda is this is our 213th episode.

We have a complicated topic about pitch and intonation today, so I’m going to jump right in. I wish I knew who gave so many of my students the idea that all questions in English should have a rising pitch at the end. It’s just not true. 

Yes/no questions—those are the questions that we can answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’—are more likely to end in a rising pitch than wh- questions, but even those can have falling pitch.

For instance, I can ask,

Did you get my email?

with a rising pitch, implying a simple yes/no question and answer, or I can ask

Did you get my email?

with a falling pitch, which could be implying that I expect an answer of ‘yes,’ or that I am asking for more information than ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I’ll talk more about that in our next episode.

Wh- question sentences—those are the questions that begin with the words ‘who, what, when, where, why’ and ‘how’—will typically end in a falling pitch. Since we have the question word (who, why, what, etc.) to mark the sentence as a question, we don’t need pitch to also indicate that we’re asking a question. 

(See our wh- question intonation lesson.)

I’m going to introduce a new term here, and that’s the word ‘unmarked.’ Unmarked, when I’m referring to word stress and intonation, means that the sentence has the most neutral meaning possible. It’s completely straightforward, and there is no special significance to any part of the sentence. Even an unmarked sentence will have some words that are stressed more than others and will have changes in pitch during and at the end of the sentence. 

So, coming back to wh- questions, an unmarked question will have a falling patch at the end of the sentence. What confuses learners is that they also hear a rising pitch mid-sentence because the content words—those are the nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—are likely to be stressed. So don’t let the rise on pitch words make it impossible to hear the falling pitch at the very end of the question sentence.

I’m going to say some wh- questions in an unmarked manner; my sentence will end in a falling pitch and my final content word gets the most stress.

“Where should we go for dinner?”
“Who borrowed my phone charger?”
“What time’s the meeting?”
“Why wasn’t the door locked?”
“When did you get here?
“How old is your daughter?”

All of these questions can be said with a rising pitch, but the nuance, or the subtle meaning of the question changes.

“Where should we go for dinner?”

with a rising intonation, could be asking for a repetition of information I already had at some point in the past.

A more emphatic 

“WHERE should we go for dinner?” (high-rising intonation) 

is more likely to be showing surprise. Perhaps I know you don’t care for that specific restaurant, but you suggested it anyway. I’m asking for confirmation while showing disbelief.

The unmarked question

“What time’s the meeting?”

is asking for basic information. A rising pitch on

“What time's the meeting?”

could indicate that I forgot what time the meeting is. 

If the meeting time is surprising to me because maybe it's very early in the day, or very late, or at the same time as some other important event, I can express that surprise while verifying information by asking, 

“What time’s the meeting?”

Notice that when I use a rising pitch because surprise or disbelief, I also stress my question word more than in the unmarked question.

Let me recap:

  • Unmarked wh- questions typically have a falling pitch
  • A rising pitch on a wh- question could be asking to have information repeated, or,
  • a high-rising pitch with a stressed question word could be expressing surprise or disbelief.

Let’s practice a few of the sentences I used above in all three pitch patterns. I’m going to say each question all three ways. If you’re having trouble hearing the pitch of the sentences, I would recommend checking out the transcripts for this episode. I have the pitch lines drawn over the sentences to help you understand how I’m saying each question. You can find the transcript by going to pronuncian.com and clicking “podcast.” 

Now, let’s practice. I’ll leave time for you to repeat after me.


We updated the lesson on Pronuncian.com to show all three of these possibilities for wh- question patterns. Go ahead and take a look; you’ll find the link in the pitch lessons. I’ll also add a link from this episode’s transcript page which again, you can find by going to Pronuncian.com and clicking “podcast.”

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Thanks for listening, everyone. Bye-bye.