What Is Inflection in Speech?

By Kristy Ambrose ; Updated September 15, 2017
Exaggerated inflection is used in public speeches and theatre.

How you say something is actually more important than what you are actually saying. The actual statistic is five times more important. This is what makes inflection such a crucial part of effective speech. Inflection is the practice of inserting emphasis to your words. There are a few different kinds of inflection and these are also influenced by cultural trends and the vocal habits that communities develop.

Kinds of Inflection

There are four main types of inflection. They are rising, falling, rising circumflex and falling circumflex. Falling inflections end most sentences with a note of authority and finality. We use rising inflections to express doubt, suggest an unfinished idea or ask a yes or no question. The circumflex types of inflection include opposing up and down patterns and are used to tell the listener that the speaker is taking a pause but is not yet done.

Using Inflections

The use of inflections extends to more than just the ends of questions or orders. Using a rising inflection too much can make you seem like a weak, indecisive or immature person and also tends to irritate your listener. Use of a falling inflection is a subtle way of asking for more information or feedback. Circumflex inflections are used to express contrasts or corrections. Exaggerated inflections are used in speech and theater to express suspense, fear or uncertainly.

Vocal Habits

Vocal habits are trends or styles that appear in the linguistic community from time to time. A recent example is the increased use of rising inflections when making statements or suggestions. This is a symptom of the "valley girl" kind of slang that was also punctuated with outbursts of "you know" or "whatever" in a falling inflection. These kinds of changes can also apply to changing levels of social etiquette and personal relationships.

Inflections and Grammar

Inflections can also affect syntax and words. The extra letters that we add to verbs, nouns and adjectives depending on their different grammatical functions are also inflections. Plural nouns, adjectives in the superlative and different verb conjugations are all examples of grammatical inflection. These are usually understood to be rules of written language, but they are equally important to speech.

About the Author

Kristy Ambrose enjoys writing about teaching, travel and pet care. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Victoria.