59: Falling pitch boundaries on yes/no questions

When to use a falling pitch instead of a rising pitch on a yes/no question.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 59th episode.

Last week I talked about pitch boundaries and the proper way of using a rising pitch on a statement. I want to emphasize again that there is a right way, and a wrong way, of using a rising pitch boundary on a statement. Use a rising pitch boundary when you are not finished speaking, and the next thing you say is directly related what you just said. Overusing rising pitch boundaries makes you sound less confident, and that is true for native and non-native speakers.

Today I'm going to talk about how to use a falling pitch boundary on a yes/no question. Most students were told to use a rising final pitch on yes/no questions and have never been told that there is also a purpose for a falling pitch.

A yes/no question, in case you're not familiar with the terminology, is a question that is formed by inverting the subject and auxiliary verb and can be answered with "yes," "no," or any version of "I don't know." These questions can have a rising pitch, or a falling pitch, and it all depends on context.

First, let's talk about the more common rising pitch. A rising pitch is used when the person asking the question really does not know the answer. If the question is not part of an ongoing conversation, the pitch will probably rise higher than if the question relates to what is already being talked about.

So, if you walk into a co-workers office and want to know if that person would like to go to lunch with you, you might say,


D'you wanna go to lunch?


The pitch was rising at the end of the word lunch because the speaker does not yet know the answer.

Here's another example. You need to get across town quickly, but you don't own a car. So, you call your friend and ask,


Can I borrow your car this afternoon?


You really didn't know what the answer would be when you asked the question.

Now, let's talk about falling pitch boundaries on yes/no questions. Let's say you see an acquaintance walking toward you on the street. You stop to say hello, and ask her if anything is new in her life. She hold up her left hand and shows you a shiny new engagement ring. You say,


Did you get engaged?


The answer to that question is most likely, "yes." There would be little other reason to show you the ring on her finger. So the question,


Did you get engaged?


is only asking for confirmation of something you probably already know. It is not the same kind of question as we first looked at.

Here's another example. You go into a nice restaurant and the server asks if you would like anything to drink. You ask,


Could I have a glass of red wine?


The answer is most likely going to be, "yes," assuming it is the kind of restaurant that serves wine.

Both of these questions, "Did you get engaged" and "Could I have a glass of wine" could have also been expressed as statements, "You got engaged," or "I'd like a glass of wine, please."

There is one other purpose for a falling pitch boundary on a yes/o question, and that is when the question is acting like a suggestion. In the United States, Mother's Day is this Sunday. It is the day we are supposed to be extra nice to our mothers. We take them to lunch, and frequently give flowers. If you know that your brother has probably forgotten about Mother's Day, you could say to him,


Did you order Mom's flowers, yet.


Given the context of the question, and the fact that you were assuming the answer was, "no," that question was serving as a recommendation, or a suggestion, or, some could say it is a warning question.

I'd like you to repeat these questions after me. I'm going to say all of the questions I used as examples during this show. Ready?


D'you wanna go to lunch?
Can I borrow your car this afternoon?
Did you get engaged?
Could I have a glass of red wine?
Did you order Mom's flowers, yet.


This information is all in my new book, "Rhythm and Intonation of American English." This book goes far beyond the typical level of detail of rhythm and intonation. It is an intermediate to advanced level book, and I think anyone interested in understanding American English intonation would find it quite helpful. The book comes out on May 15, but if you order it before then, you will receive a discount. The ebook is $32US right now, and the physical book is $42 plus shipping. You can order from any country that PayPal accepts, which is more of them. Plus, you can feel good about yourself for purchasing something from Pronuncian, because your orders are what keep this podcast coming to you, for free, every single week for 59 weeks now!

As always, visit Pronuncain.com for the transcript for this podcast episode as well as links from it to the related lessons. You can post any questions you have on this, or any other English topic, on our forums at www.pronuncian.com/forums. There is a current question on the forums about Chinese pinyin that I promised I'd try to get some more answers for by mentioning it on this show. If you know anything about Chinese pinyin, go to the sounds forum and click "t sound and double vowel sound."

That's all for today. Thanks for listening everyone.

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