The way in which a word changes its form to show a difference in its meaning or use.

Please have a look on this link too.


The sound changes produced by the rise and fall of the voice when speaking, especially when this has an effect on the meaning of what is said.

I was wondering whether based on provided links and definitions, we can define them as follows:

  • Intonation is the ups and downs of the voice in speaking. (It deals with the whole sentence.)


  • Inflection is the stress put on a specific word within a sentence. (It is more about the words of a sentence.)

And both can change the whole meaning of a sentence.

Could anyone please let me know about my take on them.

  • 2
    inflections are generally for words; intonation generally refers to the rising/falling pattern in full utterances. We say: rising and falling pattern, or rises and falls, not ups and downs.
    – Lambie
    Nov 24, 2021 at 16:09
  • Thank you @Lambie. Actually, "ups and downs" comes from here: m.youtube.com/watch?v=tzh3Owutf5Y
    – A-friend
    Nov 24, 2021 at 17:31
  • The word "stress" is used in ESL classrooms and textbooks far more often than "inflection". As an ESL teacher for 15+ years, it's possible I never saw the word "inflection" in any teaching materials.
    – gotube
    Nov 24, 2021 at 17:31
  • 1
    @gotube Sure, stress AKA tonic accent. But no ups and downs. "He inflected his words strangely". Her inflections were off. I don't think the presence of a word in teaching materials is proof of anything, necesssarily.
    – Lambie
    Nov 24, 2021 at 17:37
  • May I ask you @Lambie to post an answer including all your statements and the way you think on them?
    – A-friend
    Nov 24, 2021 at 18:09

3 Answers 3


You're right about intonation - it refers specifically to changes in pitch, ie. the "ups and downs" of the voice in the context of a sentence.

Inflection is a tricky word in that it has two very distinct meanings. One of those meanings (the one you've brought up in your post) has nothing to do with prosody or spoken language - instead, it refers to the way the word changes to denote its grammatical attributes (eg. say -> says to denote third person singular). As English is mostly an analytical language there are few cases where inflection is used, but other languages make heavy use of it in their grammars.

The other meaning of inflection is in fact related to speech patterns:

the way in which the sound of your voice changes during speech, for example when you emphasize particular words

It's a more informal meaning, with few linguistics resources using inflection in that context, and there seems to be little agreement between dictionaries what exactly it encompasses - the Cambridge definition quoted above seems to make inflection more general than intonation and include other elements of prosody such as timbre and stress, while Oxford's one is synonymous with intonation:

a change in how high or low your voice is as you are speaking

If you want to be precise, I'd avoid using inflection to describe speech pattern entirely.

  • While changes in pitch are the most important element of intonation, it includes more, see the sources i quoted in the answer that I gave. Nov 24, 2021 at 16:32
  • 1
    @DavidSiegel definitions differ there too - "Some writers (e.g., O'Connor and Arnold) [9] have described intonation entirely in terms of pitch, while others (e.g., Crystal) [10] propose that what is referred to as "intonation" is, in fact, an amalgam of several prosodic variables." Wikipedia Nov 24, 2021 at 16:49
  • Good point @Maciej Stachowski. You raised many interesting points. But let me provide you with a example ti illustrate my intention. Lets suppose someone asks you why miscommunication occurs in texting through instant message services? We all know about the lack of body language, tone etc. when it comes to writing words rather than utter them! But, which one of these two are missing in written patters that brings about such confusions? Intonation or Inflation?
    – A-friend
    Nov 24, 2021 at 17:10
  • It would be of great help if I could have your opinion here as well @David Siegel. Thank you.
    – A-friend
    Nov 24, 2021 at 17:11
  • 1
    @A-friend I would describe what is missing as "intonation" or merely as "sound". I would not use the word "inflection" for this aspect. Nov 24, 2021 at 17:54

Here is a good summary of intonation patterns in English for learners:


Here are the main intonation patterns in English:

There are two basic patterns of intonation in English: falling intonation and rising intonation. In the following examples a downward arrow (➘) indicates a fall in intonation and an upward arrow (➚) indicates a rise in intonation. Falling Intonation (➘) (The pitch of the voice falls at the end of the sentence.) [...] Falling intonation is the most common intonation pattern in English. It is commonly found in statements, commands, wh-questions (information questions), confirmatory question tags and exclamations. Statements Nice to meet ↘you. I’ll be back in a ↘minute. Commands Write your name ↘here. Show me what you’ve ↘written.
Rising Intonation (➚) (The pitch of the voice rises at the end of a sentence.) [...]

Rising intonation invites the speaker to continue talking. It is normally used with yes/no questions, and question tags that are real questions. Yes/no Questions (Questions that can be answered by 'yes' or 'no'.) Do you like your new ➚teacher? Have you finished ➚already?

Questions tags that show uncertainty and require an answer (real questions). We've met already, ➚haven't we?

[...] We sometimes use a combination of rising and falling intonation in the same sentence. The combination is called Rise-Fall or Fall-Rise intonation.

Rise-Fall Intonation (➚➘) (The intonation rises and then falls.)

We use rise-fall intonation for choices, lists, unfinished thoughts and conditional sentences. Choices (alternative questions.) Are you having ➚soup or ➘salad? Is John leaving on ➚Thursday or ➘Friday? Lists (rising, rising, rising, falling)

Intonation falls on the last item to show that the list is finished. We've got ➚apples, pears, bananas and ➘oranges [...] Fall-Rise Intonation (➘➚) (The voice falls and rises usually within one word.

The main function of fall-rise intonation is to show that the speaker is not certain of the answer they are giving to a question, or is reluctant to reply (as opposed to a falling tone used when there is no hesitation). It is also used in polite requests or suggestions. Hesitation/reluctance: So you'd be willing to confirm that? ...Well ... I ➘sup➚pose so ... You didn't see him on Monday? I don't quite ➘re➚member ...

The foregoing is only a summary; refer to the link for the full monty. :)

Whereas inflection for words is also called stress (tonic accent):

Word Stress Rules

This is a summary of how English words are stressed:

There are two very simple rules about word stress:

One word has only one stress. (One word cannot have two stresses. If you hear two stresses, you hear two words. Two stresses cannot be one word. It is true that there can be a "secondary" stress in some words. But a secondary stress is much smaller than the main [primary] stress, and is only used in long words.) We can only stress vowels, not consonants. Here are some more, rather complicated, rules that can help you understand where to put the stress. But do not rely on them too much, because there are many exceptions. It is better to try to "feel" the music of the language and to add the stress naturally.

Word stress in English

Finally, here is Merriam Webster's definition of inflection: Definition of inflection 1: change in pitch or loudness of the voice

[That definition is the one most people know.]

2a: the change of form that words undergo to mark such distinctions as those of case, gender, number, tense, person, mood, or voice

[The second one is more technical. And some such as gender are not as relevant in English: la chica and el chico, feminine and masculine, but we don't have that in English: See David's answer]


Grammatical inflection has nothing to do with sound changes, it has to do with changes in the form of the word indicating person and tense.


  • I come
  • You come
  • He comes
  • They come


  • I came
  • You came
  • He came
  • They came


  • I will come

and so on. Irregular verbs have more complex inflection such as:

  • I am
  • You are
  • He is
  • They are
  • I was
  • You were
  • He was
  • They were

That is grammatical inflection. (The term "inflection" can also be used for sound changes, but that can lead to confusion with grammatical inflection.) English has very little inflection left, Old English had significantly more. Romance languages have significantly more, as, i understand, do some other languages.

Intonation means more than the rise and fall of the voice. It can also include changes in volume, stress, and rhythm. In any case the word "intonation" is most often used when such chnges dictate or clarify the meaning or connotation of the word, or its grammatical function.

As Britannica says:

intonation, in phonetics, the melodic pattern of an utterance. Intonation is primarily a matter of variation in the pitch level of the voice (see also tone), but in such languages as English, stress and rhythm are also involved. Intonation conveys differences of expressive meaning (e.g., surprise, anger, wariness).

In many languages, including English, intonation serves a grammatical function, distinguishing one type of phrase or sentence from another. Thus, “Your name is John,” beginning with a medium pitch and ending with a lower one (falling intonation), is a simple assertion; “Your name is John?”, with a rising intonation (high final pitch), indicates a question.

Wikipedia says:

Although intonation is primarily a matter of pitch variation, it is important to be aware that functions attributed to intonation such as the expression of attitudes and emotions, or highlighting aspects of grammatical structure, almost always involve concomitant variation in other prosodic features. David Crystal for example says that "intonation is not a single system of contours and levels, but the product of the interaction of features from different prosodic systems – tone, pitch-range, loudness, rhythmicality and tempo in particular."

  • 2
    She isn't talking about this. She is talking about stress on individual words and intonation over a sentence. In other words, sounds of words and sentences in English. Your use of inflection is a different linguistic area.
    – Lambie
    Nov 24, 2021 at 17:39
  • @Lambie, the question quotes and links to the definition of inflection as "The way in which a word changes its form to show a difference in its meaning or use." That is grammatical inflection. Yes, "inflection" can also be used to refer to changes in voice sound (both words and sentences). I am advising the OP not to use that sense at all, because of probable confusion. Nov 24, 2021 at 17:59
  • Ok, for inflection, in the technical sense. Since English verbs don't inflect that much (third person singular and irregularities) I would have chosen other examples. Yes, pitch is important, too.
    – Lambie
    Nov 24, 2021 at 18:46
  • @Lambie I also skipped the technical sense which first occurs to me: mathematical inflection, the change of the shape of a function's curve from concave downward to concave upward or vice versa. Nov 24, 2021 at 23:20

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