Using Inflections

by Candice Coleman, Ph.D.

How you say something can sometimes be more important than what you say. Inflections can greatly impact meaning and conversationality. When reading copy or giving a memorized speech, a lack of conversational inflection will quickly alert your listeners to the fact that you aren’t speaking extemporaneously. The perfect words with the wrong inflection will sound mechanical and boring.

Inflections are the smooth pitch changes within words. They add interest and melody to the voice and speech. The three general types of inflection are rising, falling, and circumflex.

You’ve known about falling inflections since you were in elementary school. You know that they express finality, strength and complete thoughts; they end most sentences and interrogatives; they express authority and power.

If you’re like me, you were told in school that questions end on a rising inflection. That’s not necessarily true. We do use rising inflections to end “yes/no” questions (as well as to signify doubt, uncertainty, suspense, confusion and to suggest an incomplete thought). However, we use a falling inflection on interrogative questions and those that require a longer answer.

Read the following two sentences out loud. Notice the different inflections at the ends, even though they’re both questions.

Are you going to the store? What are you going to buy?

Didn’t the first ended with a rising inflection? It demands a “yes/no” answer. The second probably had a falling inflection. It’s an interrogative and asks for more information than a simple “yes” or “no.”

A current vocal habit with some people is to use rising inflections on the ends of almost every sentence or phrase. Besides irritating the listener, “upspeak” gives the impression of weakness, indecisiveness and immaturity. If you know you do this, break the habit by training your ear to hear the pattern. Listen closely to yourself (or a recording if necessary) and then begin to replace the inappropriate endings with falling inflections. 

Circumflex is a term you may not have heard before. We use a great deal of rising circumflex (up-down-up) when we talk, especially at the ends of phrases. They indicate to the listener that although we may be taking a pause, we haven’t finished speaking. It’s also used to indicate the first element of a contrast (It’s not red, it’s green.) and for a variety of other reasons. Unfortunately, it’s a vocal aspect that’s frequently eliminated in performance, especially when we read something we’ve memorized or has been written by someone else.

Quick Tips and Exercises:

  • Most people use the rising and falling inflections fairly well; they simply don’t make them broad enough. Exaggerate the pitch change on the following to find a new way to say them. In performance strive for a balance between the old and new.

    No!    No!!    No!!!    No?    No??    No???

    Why!    Why!!    Why!!!    Why?    Why??    Why???

  • Say each of the following words in as many different ways as possible. Use all types of inflection and exaggerate them. Think of your own words.

    Well     Go     Maybe     Please     Hey     Wow     So

  • Read these sentences to reflect the following emotions: anger, fear, regret, doubt, determination, sarcasm, disgust, joy, pity, curiosity, indifference.

    I won’t do it.   I’d love to.   She’s my friend.

  • Record your end of a few telephone conversations. Your inflection changes depending on your listener. Notice the different tone and inflection when talking to a friend as opposed to a telemarketer. How can you use this information when reading prepared material?

  • When you have a series or a list use an upward inflection for the first few items, then a falling inflection toward the end. Once you use a falling inflection, continue with it even if you still have several things to add. A lot of up-and-down will confuse your listener.

Remember! Inflections are extremely important to sounding conversations and for sharing the meaning of what you’re reading or speaking. Have fun using them.

For more information and guidance, check out The Expressive Voice System by Dr. Coleman.

If you read sacred texts, click here for more articles directly related to this aspect of reading aloud.

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©2019, Say It Well! Permission is given to reprint this article if the following is included: Reprinted by permission of Dr. Candice M. Coleman. She can be reached at 386-402-7047.

Troy McClenathan