Unruly intonation


  • Michael George Ashby University College London
  • Patricia Ashby University of Westminster




English intonation, applied phonetics, tonality, tonicity, tone


In this paper we call into question the value of ‘rules’ concerning intonation to the learner of English. Are there predictive rules of sufficient generality and power to make them worth learning explicitly, or would learners’ time be better spent on habit-forming drills of common patterns? Examining a typical test passage for advanced students, we show that in all three systems of tonality, tonicity and tone, known ‘rules’ account only for a proportion of the ‘right’ or expected answers. There are plentiful instances where competent native speakers agree over the selection of a pattern, though no rule seems to guide their choice. We recommend that the utility of ‘rules’ should be evaluated in relation to the frequency of occurrence of the structures to which they apply, in the relevant types of discourse; that more attention be given to idiomatic expressions, and the prosodic patterns associated with particular lexical items; and that learners should be equipped with simple practical heuristics (e.g. for using punctuation as a guide to intonation when reading aloud).


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How to Cite

Ashby, M. G., & Ashby, P. (2017). Unruly intonation. Linguistica, 57(1), 29–43. https://doi.org/10.4312/linguistica.57.1.29-43