Social Skills Series #15: Inflection

This is the third of several articles discussing paralanguage, the subset of nonverbal communication which includes voice tone, volume, inflection, rate, emphasis, accent, articulation differences, and everything else about vocal communication — except for the actual words being spoken. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

Today’s installment is about inflection. What is inflection you ask? Well, it’s not something you can help prevent by teaching healthy handwashing habits. It’s the rise and fall – the melody, if you will – of speech. Correct inflection is an important paralinguistic skill, and, like other skills discussed in this series, a little too easy to take for granted.

What is the difference between a statement and a question? There are different ways to think about this. To state the obvious: a statement is saying something, while a question is asking something. Here’s another way to think about it, though, if you’d care to get philosophical for a moment: statements are made by speakers who are sure of something, whereas questions are asked by speakers who are unsure.

In speech, questions are identified by inflection. Have you noticed that? “Question words” like who, what, when, where, why, and how are clues, but inflection is what really makes a question. The pitch of your voice rises toward the end of your question, as the spoken equivalent of a question mark.

Inflection changes the meaning of words, and this is the proof. Here is a list of sentences that can be either statements or questions. Try them out with your kids. Can you think of others?


Don’t you put those on the table. / Don’t you put those on the table?

The presents are for me. / The presents are for me?

School is done for the year. / School is done for the year?

Am I ever going to win! / Am I ever going to win?

You are my mother. / You are my mother?


So, we’ve established that questions are identified by inflection, and meditated on the concept that statements are given by people who are sure of something, while questions are asked by people who are unsure. So, here is your homework, both for yourselves, and for your kids: pay attention to your inflection. Does the pitch of your voice ever rise at the end of sentences that are meant to be questions? If it does, does it happen in moments when you are feeling insecure?

If you find that your voice does go up in pitch at the end of statements, try to fix it. Keep your voice level and don’t turn your statements into questions. When you hear yourself speak, do you sound more confident? Do you feel more confident?

Thank you for reading this, and I hope it gives you something valuable to chew on this beautiful, sparkly winter season. I wish you joy, love, and togetherness in all of your celebrations. See you on Boxing Day with our next installment. I think you’ll like it.


RECOMMENDED: 101 Ways to Teach Children Social Skills by Lawrence E. Shapiro, Ph.D.

Vanessa Farkas is a writer, musician, educator, and lifetime learner who worked at the Phoenix Education Foundation as a music teacher from 2010-2018 and has left to retrain and pursue a new career as a legal assistant. Her eight years at Phoenix have left her enriched with experiences and stories, and this series blends those stories and experiences with practical advice and perspectives on helping children develop social skills. Names have been changed.