Yes/no question intonation in English

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I must admit that I’m not much of a stickler for correct intonation because I think that students of English have more important things to worry about. Nevertheless, there are still important lessons to be learned. So let’s proceed with analysing the intonation of yes/no questions.


WHICH PITCH PATTERNS ACCOMPANY YES/NO QUESTIONS?


RISING PITCH

Asking yes/no questions with a rising pitch is far more common than asking them with a falling pitch.

Put simply, if you’re not sure of the answer to your question, apply a rising pitch.

Questions which function as random conversation starters should have a pitch that rises much higher than follow-up confirmation-type questions which relate to what is already being talked about. 

The rising intonation of yes/no questions is firmly associated with politeness. Applying rising intonation sounds very polite and cultural!

Rising pitch - examples:

(a) Someone walks into a small corner shop to find out whether it sells stamps:

"Do you have any ➚ stamps?"

The pitch rises at the end of the word "stamps" because the speaker is not sure whether such a small shop would stock stamps.

(b) John needs to make an urgent appointment, but his car won’t start. So, he calls his friend, David, and asks:

"Dave, can I borrow your car this after ➚ noon?"

The pitch rises before “-noon” because John is not sure whether his friend David has plans to use the car or not.

FALLING PITCH

The intonation of yes/no questions does not solely revolve around a rising pitch.

There are certain contexts whereby the pitch of yes/no questions actually falls.

Falling pitch - examples:

(a) Seeking confirmation of information that is probably already known or clear:

You’re waiting for a friend outside the building of a company where he is having a job interview. He later exits the building with a wide smile on his face. He then says “You’ll never guess what?” You say:

“What! Did they offer you the job in there?"

Well, the answer to that question will more than likely be "yes." There would be little other reason for your friend to look so cheerful. Therefore, the question:

Did they offer you the job in there?

demands confirmation of something you are quite sure you already know. 

(b) Polite assumptions:

You are in a fancy restaurant and the waiter asks if you would like anything extra with your meal. You say:

Could I have extra bread with my meal, please?

The waiter’s answer will, of course, be “yes”, unless it’s a fancy restaurant which doesn't have any bread.

Not very likely!

Overall, you don’t need to use a rising intonation for polite requests and assumptions which you are 99.9% sure the respondent will answer with “yes”.

(c) Questions which perform the role of suggestions:

You notice that your spouse has not done the hoovering, even though they promised to do it. To avoid a direct confrontation, you could say:

Have you done the hoovering, yet?

You assume that your spouse’s answer will be "no,"  so the falling pitch on question serves as a recommendation or a suggestion.


WHY DO YOU NEED TO PRACTISE THE INTONATION OF YES/NO QUESTIONS IN THE REAL WORLD?

Frankly, you must practise what you’re learning in the real world. 

I remember teaching English to a Russian poet and TV presenter. At the time we were practising the intonation of yes/no questions, she was planning to move to the UK. She was eager to try out her new knowledge of English intonation patterns on her acquaintances and random native speakers.

I believe that this student has never backed out of a challenge in her life. Therefore, I believe she did put dozens and dozens of yes/no questions to people all over England.


YES/NO QUESTION INTONATION - EXAMPLES

Listen to and repeat the intonation pattern in the following yes/no questions. Click here for a link to the recording:

1. Is he a policeman?

2. Could she do it?

3. Is she sleeping right now?

4. Should he have read the report?

5. Does he run every day?

6. Did he run every day?

7. Would you like to go swimming?

8. Are you coming?

9. Aren’t you coming then? (slight falling pitch - seeking confirmation)

9. Have you been here before?

10. Were they feeling better?

11. Do you want to talk to me about it? (slight falling pitch - the receiver has some emotional problems and they do need someone to talk to)


CONClusion

In summary, the intonation of yes/no questions does not require a great deal of effort to master. Listen to the way that native speakers ask questions in order for the intonation patterns to really sink in.

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