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Ministry of Education.

Tone Groups

In English, the intonation patterns are on groups of words.

These groups can be called tone groups. Some books call them tone units, intonation groups, or sense groups.

Tone groups can contain only one word or as many as seven or eight.

  • /no / I really can't put up with it / good-bye/

Because tone groups are said on a single breath, they are limited in length and average about two seconds, or about five words.

An understanding of tone groups is crucial to understanding the difference between written and spoken language. In written language, the basic unit is the sentence; in spoken language, it is the tone group. We break up spoken language into tone groups because we need to breathe, and so there is a physical reason for this structure. But there is also the need to think; that is, tone groups also have a cognitive basis. While we are speaking one tone group, we are planning the next one, and so the tone group carries only one idea at a time. Thus the pace of the tone groups, and the information they convey, matches the speaker's thoughts.

From time to time, it is necessary to pause and draw breath, and also to plan.

These planning pauses are often marked by um or er, which are technically called voiced hesitations.

The tone group boundaries have been marked in the following passage. It was delivered at a fast tempo, and so the tone groups are on average longer than in other styles of speech.

  it's out on the full / watching Heffanan / he came across / he didn't try to take the ball / he just speculated it straight on out / but it must've been out / before he got there / because the line-out has been given / eight yards outside Belfast twenty-five / nineteen points to four / Belfast in front / fifteen minutes remaining / and into the line-out / knocked down to Edmundson / can't control it this time /

The division of a sentence into tone groups can affect the meaning in some cases.

  • Do you take sugar?
    • / I don't / no /
      Meaning: I don't, no.
    • / I don't no/
      Meaning: I don't know.
  • The prince said the princess had been unfaithful.
    • / The prince said / the princess had been unfaithful./
      Meaning: The prince said (that) the princess had been unfaithful.
    • / The prince / said the princess / had been unfaithful./
      Meaning: "The prince," said the princess, "had been unfaithful."

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Published on: 07 May 2009