214: Yes/No Pitch Patterns

Understand the rising and falling pitch patterns for yes/no questions and learn how to read emotion.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy’s American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Amanda is this is our 214th episode.

Episode 213 was about the intonation patterns of wh- questions. In that episode, I told you that the unmarked pitch boundary—that’s the intonation pattern for the most neutral meaning possible—for a wh- question is falling. A rising pitch boundary for a wh- question can be asking for the repetition or clarification of information. A high-rising pitch boundary can express surprise or disbelief. Usually, the more a pitch changes in a sentence, the more emotion is being expressed. (See Wh- Question Intonation lesson.)

Today I’m going to tell you about pitch boundary choices for yes/no questions (see lesson). As you probably already know, the unmarked pitch boundary for a yes/no question is a rising pitch.

Some examples are:


All of those questions ended in a rising pitch. That is important, but I also want you to notice the pitch word of each question. The pitch word is the most important key word of a sentence. It’s usually a content word, and is often the final content word of the sentence. Pitch words are given greater emphasis than other words in the sentence and usually, as the name suggests, also have a change in pitch. Pitch words and pitch boundaries work together to express meaning.

Let’s look at those three questions again and notice the pitch words in addition to the rising pitch at the end of the sentence. 

In the question “Did you understand that?” the word “understand” has the most emphasis. My pitch rose a little on that word, then rose even more through the end of the sentence. I’ll say it again. 


In the question “Do you have Dave’s phone number?” my pitch word is the word “phone.” Why is it “phone” and not “number”? I mean, I just said that our final content word should be the pitch word, but here it isn’t. Why not? Well, the words “phone number” are an open compound noun. Basically they are a compound noun that happens to have the words separated by a space. Compound nouns, open or not, are stressed on the first word. If you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, I’ll include a link in the transcript to the Pronuncian.com lesson that explains compound nouns.

So in my question “Do you have Dave’s phone number?” the pitch rises on our pitch word “phone,” then continues to rise through the end of the question. Once again, the pitch is highest at the very end of the sentence. Here it is again:


Now that you hopefully have the idea, listen to this question: Are you going on vacation? The word “vacation,” stressed on the second syllable, is my pitch word and also the final word of the question. The pitch rises right through to the end of that word. Listen again: 


Those were all simple questions using neutral, unmarked intonation. There was no emotion added to them or suggestion that maybe there was just something more being asked. We call this unmarked intonation pattern the Yes/No Rising Pitch.

It is possible, however, to ask a yes/no questions with a falling pitch.

If I ask


with a falling pitch, it’s likely that I already know that you do have his phone number, and I would like you to share it with me. In that question, my pitch word was still the word phone, and the pitch then fell at the end of the sentence. We’ll call this the Yes/No Falling Pitch pattern.

Similarly, asking


with a falling pitch shows that I expect an answer of “yes.” My pitch rises on the word “understand” because that’s my natural pitch word for the sentence. Then I’m confirming, by using a slightly serious falling pitch, that you do understand.

If I knew you had been planning a vacation and then I noticed you packing up your office differently one Friday afternoon, I might ask “Are you going on vacation?” with a falling pitch. I’m confirming what I already think.

Since I already have a presumed answer to a yes/no question asked with a falling pitch, sometimes the question could also be expressed it in the form of a rising wh- question. For instance, “What’s Dave’s phone number?” using a rising pitch signals the repetition of a previous question. It’s not that different from “Do you have Dave’s phone number?” using a falling pitch. I would say that the difference between the two is that there is also a slightly more serious tone to a Yes/No Falling pitch.

Speaking of tone, let’s mark it even more. What kind of emotion do you think is behind this question:


I’ll say it again.


If you thought I sounded a little annoyed or impatient, you’d be correct. I gave a lot of emphasis to the word “phone,” saying it much louder and for more time than in the previous examples. Then my pitch fell through the word “number.” The intonation is conveying something negative and critical. Maybe I have asked you for Dave’s phone number quite a few times and you still haven’t given it to me. 

“Do you have Dave’s phone number?” with the extra emphasis on my content word and a falling pitch after is an example of a Yes/No Emphatic fall.

Listen to the Yes/No Emphatic Fall here:


Yikes! I don’t think you really want to be asked that question in that tone. I’ll say it again, “Did you understand that?” It sounds snobby and condescending. I could be implying that you should understand it and I don’t know why you don’t. Asking that question in that tone is sending a pretty strong message.

Let’s go back to the question about taking the vacation. If I give extra emphasis to the stressed syllable of the word “vacation” and then let my pitch fall, I might be showing that I’m irritated. Maybe we’re colleagues and I have to do your work while you’re out of the office.


Here’s the deal with the Yes/No Emphatic Falling pitch. Be careful when you use it. It can come across as rude. It is definitely good to know about it and understand it, so you can read the pattern when you hear it.

Here are those question again. I’m going to say them, then leave time for you to repeat. First, here is the Yes/No Rising Pitch. Remember, this is the most neutral, unmarked intonation pattern for a yes/no question.


Here are those question said with the Yes/No Falling pitch.


And here they are with the Yes/No Emphatic Falling pitch.


If you’re still with me today, good job. This was a tough podcast. The transcripts show the sentences with contour lines so you can see the pitch patterns as well as hear them. You can find the transcripts on Pronuncian.com. Just click the podcast link. If you’re listening to this from the future, you can click the archives link for older episode transcripts. I’ll also link to the lessons on Pronuncian that have more information about the topics discussed during this show.

That’s it, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. You can find more information about Seattle Learning Academy and our pronunciation and other classes classes by visiting www.seattlelearning.com.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.