Pitch words are the single most important word of an intonation unit in a spoken English sentence. They are given more vocal emphasis than any other word in the intonation unit and also use pitch changes to convey subtle meaning.

(Intonation units are an important concept when learning about pitch words. See the lesson here.)

How to Create a Pitch Word

Pitch words are created similarly to stressed words. The stressed syllable of stressed words and pitch words may have the following characteristics:

  • altered pitch
  • lengthening
  • increase in loudness

However, there are differences between stressed words and pitch words, both in their creation and their purpose. In short, the stressed syllables of pitch words are louder, longer, and have a greater change in pitch than the stressed syllables of stress words. Pitch words also communicate more information than stressed words.

In the following sentences, the words "like" and "where's" are stressed words. The words "water" and "baby" are stressed words and pitch words.

Purpose of Pitch Words

Pitch words are used for a variety of reasons. Usually they

  1. highlight new information
  2. give special emphasis to a specific detail
  3. show uncertainty, or
  4. how contrast between two things or ideas.

Intonation Patterns of Pitch Words

Speakers choose which intonation pattern to apply to a pitch word based on the word's purpose.

1) Highlighting New Information

To highlight the information of an intonation unit that is new, the stressed syllable of the word conveying the information is given a higher pitch. This is the most common pitch pattern.

2) Giving Special Emphasis to a Detail

If a speaker chooses, new information can be given an extra-high pitch. This tells that the information carries extra importance or that the speaker might be sharing surprising information.

\While an extra-high pitch conveys additional importance, using a low pitch—along with syllable lengthening, since a low pitch can be harder to notice—can tell a listener that information is not new, but that it is important. For instance, this can be used to reiterate an important detail.

3) Showing Uncertainty

A pitch pattern called a scoop pitch can show uncertainty. The pitch starts low, then quickly falls lower before coming back to the original low position. This pattern would be used to show surprise or uncertainty (but not shock or surprise) about specific information.

4) Showing Contrast

When contrasting or correcting previous information, the stressed syllable of the pitch word usually has a rising pitch.