215: Low pitches express "bonus" unformation

Use a low pitch to signal a spoken aside (like information that would be written in parentheses or between commas).


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy’s American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Amanda and this is our 215th episode.


The last two episodes were about how to use pitch to ask very precise questions. Hopefully, you learned that there can be more to the question than the question itself. For instance, a yes/no question can be asking for a yes or no answer, or maybe it’s showing annoyance or impatience. Intonation matters!

Today you’ll learn that dropping to a low pitch in the middle of a sentence lets listeners know that the information provided is extra. It’s like bonus material that isn’t critical to the message, but is slipped in anyway. If we were reading the information instead of hearing it, we’d probably see this content set apart with commas or parentheses. 

This will be easier to understand with examples. So, in the sentence:


The middle part of that sentence, “My daughter’s teacher,” was the extra bit of information, and I said it at a lower pitch than the rest of the sentence. Non-critical information that we add to sentences are called asides. Since we use a low pitch to begin an aside, we call this intonation pattern a Low Aside.

I’ll say the sentence again. Notice that the phrase, “my daughter’s teacher,” begins with a low pitch:


There were two other features that you may have noticed in the sentence. First, there was a pause before the aside and at the end of the aside. Second, the aside had a pitch word of its own. The pitch went up again on the word “teacher.” 

If you’ve been studying English intonation, you might be saying to yourself, “Wait a second, this all sounds very similar to an intonation unit.” If you caught that, congratulations, you are an advanced learner of pitch and intonation. 

If you’re new to this podcast, let me explain. Intonation units are chunks of speech that have three distinguishing characteristics:

  1. They begin more quickly than they end.
  2. They usually include a single pitch word.
  3. And they end with a pitch boundary.

Our aside, “my daughter’s teacher,” has all three of those characteristics and is a fully independent intonation unit. Dropping an intonation unit into the middle of a sentence means that the information before it and after it will also become independent intonation units.

So my full sentence,


has three complete intonation units. If the aside weren’t included in the sentence, the whole thing could have been said with one single intonation unit. That would sound like:

Mrs. Rosso asked me to call her this afternoon.

In that case, either the word “call” or the word “afternoon” could be the pitch word. The way I just said the sentence, “call” was my pitch word. I’ll say it again.

Mrs. Rosso asked me to call her this afternoon.

When I split the sentence into pieces because of the aside, I’ll have three intonation units, and three pitch words: Rosso, teacher, and call.

Listen again: 


That’s a lot going on just to add some information that might not even be all that important. So why would a speaker do this?

Well, there are a few reasons. One reason could be to remind the listener of information. Perhaps maybe you know my daughter’s teacher’s name already, but I’m not sure. This is a way to give you a quiet, little reminder.

Using the low starting pitch in the Low Aside also helps our listener understand that the purpose of the information isn’t to change the topic. Let's use a new example. The sentence


has an aside of “who I didn’t even ask.” I could be adding this information to let you know that I have a really great brother, even if the topic was about me getting home from the airport. My low pitch tells you that I’m not trying to change the topic to talk about my brother, I just wanted to let you know that he’s nice.

Here's another sentence:


Again, the main point of the sentence is that Jacob paid his bill. The aside is that I had to continually ask him to pay it. I’m expressing my dissatisfaction with Jacob, but I’m also using pitch to to say that the bill has been paid, and that is the more important content.

Although an aside is not directly going to change the topic, it can open a door to a topic shift.

The sentence, 


This sentence allows the conversation to shift to the fact that it took her a few times to pass the class. I could be implying that it’s a really hard class and that we can shift the conversation from Marjorie to the class's difficulty. My choice of intonation pattern made the shift possible in a quiet way.

I’m going to give you five more examples of sentences with asides. I’m going to give you time to repeat each sentence after me. If you want to visually see the the intonation patters as well as hear them, go to Pronuncian and click the “Podcasts” link. The diagram for each sentence is shown in the transcript. Just find Episode 215.

Ready for the sentences? Here we go!


Could you hear the asides in those sentence? Is this information helpful to you? We always appreciate your feedback. You can contact us and ask us questions via Facebook or Twitter, just search for Pronuncian, spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n. We also really appreciate iTunes reviews. They make us feel all tingly and happy.

That’s all for today, everyone. Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.