I have been told that rising and falling intonation can change the meaning of a sentence. For me as a non-native speaker of English this may sometimes cause misunderstanding. In the following construction, can be there any differences in meaning in terms of using rising or falling intonation?

  1. Do you want me to call Tim' or Jack?

  2. Do you want me to call Tim or Jack'?

  3. Do you want me to call Tim' or Jack'?

  • 2
    Different stresses do suggest a difference in meaning, that's kind of the whole point of stressing things. That said, for this example in particular, what that meaning might be, we cannot say. It would need to arise from context. Looking at just the sentence in isolation, all three variations are ultimately asking the exact same thing, and why the speaker puts the stresses where he does — shrug. Who are these people, why would one be preferable over the other, we do not know. Who is the speaker, for that matter. For all we know, it's just Christopher Walken and that's the end of it.
    – RegDwigнt
    Mar 23, 2019 at 11:23
  • @RegDwigнt it's a question of nucleus placement and nuclear tone. Not stress placement. Mar 23, 2019 at 13:05
  • @Araucaria - There can be an element of stressing the point in questions which brings in a different element to the intonation. Mar 24, 2019 at 7:52
  • @RegDwigнt If dual spoken emphases were placed on both me and Jack but none on Tim, then a completely different reading of the same written sentence would be entirely possible: “Do you want me to call Tim or do you want Jack to call Tim?” Much that could never be ambiguous in speech becomes so in writing for lack of clearly indicated intonation patterns. Sometimes you can do this with punctuation like commas or quotes or by switching the roman to italic, but often alternative phrasings must be sought in the written form for things that would never confuse anyone spoken aloud.
    – tchrist
    Mar 24, 2019 at 15:33

3 Answers 3


All spoken languages use intonation, either for meaning of sentences, meaning of words, or as a byproduct of pronunciation. That said, each speaker will have their own way of intoning words and phrases that fits their personality or mood-at-the-moment. Generally speaking, though, your first sentence, in English, is an "either or" tone structure. Usually, the first choice is spoken with rising intonation and the second with descending:

Would you like X (up) or Y (down)?

What is confusing for foreign speakers is that they are told that in English, sentences are designated as question sentences with a rising intonation at the end. This is only partly true and depends on the accent of the speaker. For example, in the question,

"Where is the bus stop?"

The rising intonation happens on the interrogative, "where," and not on "stop." However, I have heard people with an Irish accent speak the sentence with a rising tone on "where" and "stop," which for me seems unnatural. I teach American English with a "Chicago Broadcast" accent.

In examples 2 and 3, the names "Tim" and "Jack" are being emphasized. I don't know the situation, so I can't really say why those would be stressed, but they seem unnatural to me. One thing I have noticed is that when trying to see if something "sounds right," the repetition tends to make anything "sound right." Example 2 seems like a speaker trying to impose question intonation on a sentence which should have "either or" intonation.

If you'd like to explore this subject more there are a few books. I have used this book for several years, and found it very helpful. Also, I have followed this Youtuber for a while and she has good information. Keep in mind that English is spoken in many different ways, so a British speaker (and there are hundreds of accents) has different intonations that an American or Australian or someone from India.


Do you want me to call Tim' or Jack?

Do you want me to call Tim or Jack'?

Do you want me to call Tim' or Jack'?

It is almost impossible to represent intonation without using musical notation and even then there are microtones that cannot be shown accurately.

Without intonation, the question, "Do you want me to call Tim or Jack'?" is ambiguous.

It can mean

(a) Do you want me to call Tim or alternatively do you want me to call Jack?

(b) Do you want me to call Tim or Jack or neither?

Here is my diagram showing a possible very simplified intonation (I am a musician).

enter image description here

Note that (a) starts low, rises for "Tim or" and drops again for "Jack".

(b) starts high and drops for Jack.

If I have time I might write this out in musical notation but it won't help if you don't read music!


As a musician I can tell you that these are not unique patterns and that there are subtleties in microtones all the way through. The only way that you can truly get this right is by listening to native speakers.

  • 1
    Perhaps you want Tim to call Jack rather than wanting her to call Jack.
    – tchrist
    Mar 24, 2019 at 15:29
  • @tchrist - Good point! When I have time I might add that to my diagram. Mar 24, 2019 at 15:53

The whole issue of high and low intonation is complex and involves style of speech as well as meaning.

Take for example, those who upspeak. To me it's an annoying style of speaking which is becoming more and more used as far as I have noticed. This is for sentences as well as questions.

With questions, it is appropriate sometimes to raise intonation at the end of a question, but not always. Listening to my intonation, if there is only one option at the end of the sentence, for example,

Do you want me to call Jack?

Some of the time...

The intonation is raised at the beginning of the name Jack and lowered through the name to the end where the intonation is the same as midrange of the rest of the question (main intonation) with an almost unnoticeable dip towards the end.

If there is more than one option, with all but the last option, the intonation stays at the main intonation and the last option starts at the main intonation and finishes lower.

With your examples:

  1. Do you want me to call Tim' or Jack?

  2. Do you want me to call Tim or Jack'?

  3. Do you want me to call Tim' or Jack'?

If the apostrophes indicate high intonation, number 2 would sound unnatural to me, whereas number 1 is a question with a definitive ending and number 3 has no definitive ending, allowing the answerer to respond with an alternative name to Tim or Jack.

But, there are other times where the intonation is different.

With one option, the beginning of the option will be higher than the main intonation and dip to the main and quickly raise again slightly higher; and with more than one option the previous options to the last will be at the main intimation throughout followed by the last option which has a dipped intonation (high at start dipped to low and quickly raised to slightly high).

  • But isn't (as that link you give says, even) a rising tone at the end appropriate for a question? (That is, not "upspeak" at all?)
    – mattdm
    Mar 23, 2019 at 22:46
  • @mattdm - no that is not upspeak. Upspeak is when you use rising intonation at the end of statements and other sentences. However, as I pointed out, it is not always appropriate to raise intonation at the end of a question Mar 24, 2019 at 6:38

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