Two questions with the same words can have somewhat different meanings. For example, I could ask

  1. Do you want to go to the zoo or the museum?

    with my intonation/pitch rising after zoo, or

  2. Do you want to go to the zoo or the museum?

    with a higher intonation on zoo going down to a lower pitch by museum.

So, using only intonation, it seems we can distinguish between "here are two of our options" (1) and "here are our only two options" (2).

Is there a name for intonation changing the meaning of a sentence?

  • 1
    I don't agree that the intonation patterns you describe equal the different meanings you assign to them. The listener won't be clued in by those two intonation patterns. If you say "You're a doctor" with falling intonation, it's a declarative, something a director might say to an actor for an impromptu scene, but if you say it with rising intonation, you're saying "I'm so surprised to learn that you're a doctor. You don't {look old enough to be / look like / sound like} a doctor", or something like that. This isn't a real Q because the example's flawed. Please provide a reasonable example.
    – user21497
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 8:29
  • There's a localization aspect to this question also due to regional inflection patterns. For example, the example question asked by someone from Pennsylvania with their characteristic dropped tone at the end of a question would sound completely different than if asked by a Chicagoan. Of course, the written version would have no nuance whatsoever. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 8:36
  • 5
    @BillFranke: The question here is not whether this is a good example or not. It's about what the term is called for a phrase where the voice can convey meaning by means other than vocabulary and syntax. We understand what he's asking, so no need to "not agree".
    – awe
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 11:38
  • 3
    +1 A good question. In summary: 'Is there a name for intonation changing the meaning of a sentence?' Period.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 12:07
  • Um, no. I'm afraid there is a buried presupposition here to the effect that the "sentence" didn't already contain intonation. It did. Sentences are aural phenomena. They're noise. They have duration, amplitude, and pitch. It's only the "words" on the page, the dissected organs of the sentence, that don't contain intonation. The "meaning of the sentence" is the meaning of the sentence with intonation. Change the intonation, you change the sentence, and frequently when you change a sentence, you change its meaning. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 17:19

1 Answer 1


The ways in which the voice can convey meaning by means other than vocabulary and syntax are known collectively as prosody. I know of no single word for the particular feature you describe. However, changes in intonation can be described by terms such as low fall, mid fall, high rise, fall-rise and so on.

It seems that in your first sentence the change in pitch might be a low rise, and in the second a rise-fall. It is, however, impossible to be sure from the text alone. It would be necessary to hear a recording of the speech, and to analyse it as a whole. Previous speeches in the conversation, the relationship between the participants and the accompanying facial expressions would also be relevant.

  • 1
    Prosody sounds like the best bet to me. I like this example of "Prosodic Signals of Two Grammatical Differences" - f someone is reciting a list of items, we know whether the list is complete or not by the pitch of the voice. If the pitch is rising . . ., there are more items to come. If it is falling . . ., there is nothing further to come. The difference is suggested in writing by the use of a series of dots instead of a full stop. In OP's case, three dots, a comma, or a hyphen after "zoo" could be used to differentiate. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 14:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.