Consider these two questions:

Would you mind saying a little bit more about that?


What do you mean by that?

When they perform the same function, and I expect an answer to both, why does the first have a falling intonation and the second one which rises?

My group of learners are as puzzled as I am - what suggestions does this group have?

  • 1
    This begs the questions, why wouldn't the intonation change when the structure is so radically different? and does the first one have a falling intonation? It doesn't for me. Are semantically similar questions asked with the same intonation in you mother tongue, Edd? – Matt E. Эллен Mar 5 '12 at 11:54
  • My mother tounge in British English, the sentences come from materials prepared by the British Council; to me (and them) the first sentence has a falling intonation. – Edd Turner Mar 5 '12 at 12:10
  • Hmmm. The only way I can get my intonation to fall is if I ask it in an exasperated manner. Otherwise it's flat or up. – Matt E. Эллен Mar 5 '12 at 12:27
  • We are often told that in English, yes-no questions, auxiliary questions or questions starting with a modal often have a rising intonation (the voice of the reader goes up), whereas with the wh- questions, the voice goes down, i.e. a falling intonation. Am I right or wrong? More information if possible. – user26206 Sep 18 '12 at 11:07

Formally, they are not the same. The first question is a yes/no question (“Would you mind?” “No, I wouldn’t.”) and the second question is an information question (“What do you mean?” “I mean what I say.”) In standard English, a yes/no question ends with a rising intonation and an informational question with a falling intonation, but there is considerable variation between and dialects.

Personally, when I say “What do you mean by that?”, I would end the word “that” with a rising intonation, to show I am asking for information but, for added emphasis, I might start the word “that” with the opposite intonation. So my voice would go up, and then down.

Similarly, in “Would you mind saying a little more about that?” I would end “that” with a rising intonation, because it is a yes/no question but, to add emphasis, I might start it with the opposite intonation. So my voice would go down, and then up.


The first is not so much a question as an invitation. It doesn't expect the answer 'Yes, I would' or 'No, I wouldn't'. The second is, usually, a genuine inquiry, expecting an exposition of whatever point wasn't clear.

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