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In a sentence involving a string of verbs as a list (as opposed to modifying each other), the standard American English tonal pattern for that string almost always begins high and decreases in pitch with each item. (Perhaps this is true of lists of other parts of speech as well.)


The activities included dancing, swimming, biking, and cheese-making.

I have heard a semi-consistent violation of this rule in which the second list item is of higher pitch than the first, and then the rest follow the usual descending pitch rule. I know very little about formal sonority theory so I am speaking more or less straight from the gut.

Is the "standard pattern" I inferred really standard?

Is this deviation from it meaningful?

Is it a regional preference to which I am not sensitive?

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So you mean a list such as: 'run, jump, skip, stand'? A raise in pitch from the first to second item sounds very odd to my ear. Can you give an actual example that you've heard? – Snubian May 12 '11 at 3:29
@Snubian - Added example. If it helps, there might be a slight pause between the first and second list items. – WAF May 12 '11 at 3:37

As you say I think the tendency is to descend in pitch as you read any list:

I'll have a Big Mac, fries, Coke and a sundae.

Unless one is speaking in a monotone the last item might be emphasised by a rise in pitch.

An exception to this might be if the speaker is intentionally drawing attention to each item in the list in an exaggerated manner, such as an emcee, TV show host or other professional speaker.

Julie's talents include dancing, singing and playing the banjo.

Try saying the above sentence such that there is a rise in pitch from 'dan' to 'cing', another rise to 'sing' but then a drop to 'ing', followed by a gradual descent in 'playing the banjo'.

This is difficult to describe in words!

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Is there some standard notation for this type of thing? – WAF May 13 '11 at 4:28

I've never been conscious of speaking in this manner before reading this question, but when I would list possible activities that would be the available activities for scouts to do at summer camp, I would say the different listed activity verbs with descending pitch, but raise pitch on the one that I knew from previous conversations that they would be most interested in knowing about, a way to verbally put that word in italics so that they would notice it. They would be especially interested in something fun that was not offered continuously.

"It says here that tomorrow that camp will offer swimming, hiking, cooking, rifle-shooting, and archery.

It was a way to show a bit of excitement at the instant of realization that a hoped for development was actually going to happen.

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In your edit, you said there might be a slight pause between the first and second list items when there is higher intonation on the second item. Thinking about it, as a native speaker I can only get the higher intonation on the second item if there's a pause.

Therefore, I suspect the intonational difference is a consequence of the pause. We English speakers have a tendency to begin a breath group (a series of utterances uninterrupted by breaths or pauses) with a medium-to-high pitch, or at least higher than the pitch you would normally have in the middle of a list of things.

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