From native English speakers I often hear the phrase "How are you?" intonated differently. Sometimes the word "are" is stressed, and sometimes the word "you" is. What is the difference between these variants?


Typically, the first person to ask the question will emphasize the word are.

After responding, the second person will emphasize the word you to indicate that they are changing the focus of the conversation from themselves to the other person.

The exchange is often something like this (though the italics aren't typically written):

A: How are you?

B: I'm fine. How are you?

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You is, as onomatomaniak says, normally only stressed in a reply. However, there are some particularly effusive characters who will stress you even when they are initiating the greeting.

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  • 3
    I don't think one has to be particularly effusive to stress you in the sentence. In my experience, it is often used to express special consideration for the person addressed. It may signify that the two speakers haven't met in quite a while, or that some calamity (or even good fortune) has befallen the addressee since the last meeting, or that the addressee is especially dear to the person speaking. It is merely a variation, not something to which negative judgments must be attached. – Robusto Dec 12 '11 at 14:19
  • @Robusto 初夢: I agree. Such stress is not limited to effusive personalities. – Barrie England Dec 12 '11 at 15:14

Hi how are you (going up)
Hi how are you (going down)
Hi how are you
Hi how are you

...are all valid, along with 1001 other variations of the platitude (how are you doing, how's it going, how you doing). It makes no difference to the meaning but does change the emphasis slightly so the speaker is implying a different meaning.

But the main difference is between sounding like you care versus being polite.

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  • Chris, thanks for pointing out that stressing the "you" word can be done in different ways (up and down), +1. If it's possible, could you, please, give some explanations on what is the difference in shades of meaning between those two ways of stressing the last word. Is it somehow connected to "care" versus "being polite"? – rem Dec 12 '11 at 18:48
  • @Rem Usually the voice going up on the "you" will mean the person asking is sounding surprised, or happy to see the person. The same with the emphasis on "are". I would argue "you" going down sounds as if the person is being polite rather than genuine pleasure in seeing the person, but it's obviously open to interpretation. – Chris S Dec 12 '11 at 19:46

The stress emphasises the questioner's focus.

"How are you" says "I'm not asking about anyone else. I am specifically asking about you."

"How are you" says "Let's take it as understood that I'm asking about you. The important thing is, how you are."

But, these are subtle differences, and the speaker probably isn't thinking about it when they speak.

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Having recorded acres and acres of English languages courses over the past 20 years, and so having heard (and recorded and directed) many people say "!How are you?" (obviously a classic phrase to learn at beginner level) I think I can assert that the classic "How ARE you" as an opener, followed by "How are YOU" as a response (which I also taught for years) is no longer true in all cases. Many if not most younger people say "how are YOU" as an opener these days: the stress on YOU seems to indicate friendship, and is used to show that they are talking to and enquiring after "YOU". In fact, if you ask some young people to say "How ARE you" some of them giggle - they think it sounds funny and a bit high class. However the old pattern is still true for older people - 40 and over I'd say - although that's changing too. None of which makes life any easier for the teacher of English - or the learner, of course.

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