• Galina Blankenship

Intonation Contours and Punctuation Patterns in English and Turkish: Comma & Appositional Intonation

Updated: Jul 11

A painting by Mohamed Elmoslemany depicting a woman's bust in a turban.
Unnamed Painting by Mohamed Elmoslemany

Information Structure & Intonation Units

According to the principal of information structure (packaging), we communicate with each other by breaking our massages into individual pieces of information.

In speech, the speaker articulates such pieces of information as intonation units, which the hearer processes as information units. A piece of information can be defined as an intonation unit that contains one prominent point—stress.

Intonational unit is a unit of speech containing from one to several words, one primary stress, and a single intonation contour. Studies have shown that, in spontaneous conversation, the mean length of the intonation unit is around five or six words, or two seconds.

Compared with the sentence—the unit of written language—the intonation unit is more dependent on an individual speaker’s personality and other pragmatic needs.

There are no strict rules about the length or boundaries of intonation units. While a single clause must have at least one intonation unit, a longer clause may have more than one intonation unit.

As every sentence has at least one intonation/information unit, it is common for such a unit to correspond to a syntactical unit. It may be the sentence itself or, more often, a syntactical unit within the sentence.


Intonation Units in English

In English, these elements are typically pronounced as separate intonation units:

If these elements are positioned canonically (normally), they typically merge together with other units:

[We experienced a major crisis last year].

[The angry man sat down].

[We had to change our business tactics] [after we had a major crisis].


If we position the elements differently, we signal the word order change with intonation:

Introductory adverbial phrase/clause, infinitival or participial clause (reduced or full) (introductory element):

[Last year](,) [we experienced a major crisis].

[Angry], [the man sat down].

[After we had a major crisis], [we had to change our business tactics].

Fronted object or complement (fronting):

[Our business tactics], [we’ve had to change] [after we had a major crisis].

Dislocated object or complement (left dislocation):

[Our business tactics], [we’ve had to change them] [after we had a major crisis].

Nonessential relative clause (parenthetical):

[Last year](,) [we changed our business tactics], [which also included our hiring tactics].

Essential relative clause (which are not be pronounced as separate intonation units) (essential element):

[We’ve had to change the business tactics that proved unsuccessful].

Nonessential sentential relative clause (parenthetical):

[Last year](,) [we changed our business tactics], [which [for now] has not proved successful].

Interrupting (parenthetical) phrase or clause (aside):

[Our business tactics][if we are to believe our Accounting][have proved successful].

Postponed closing phrase or clause (afterthought):

[Our business tactics have proved successful], [if we are to believe our Accounting].

Introductory / interrupting (transitional) or closing (postponed) conjunctive adverb:

[Moreover], [our business tactics have proved successful].

[Our marketing tactics have proved successful]; [however], [we still need to upgrade our IT system].

[We had to change our business tactics], [frankly].

A vocative, interjection, transitional expression, interrogative tag (parenthetical):

[Hey], [Mary], [you’re going to the party], [aren’t you]?

Items in a series (serial comma):

[The day was warm] [and hopeful].

[The day was cold](,) [but hopeful].

[To her], [it was cold], [unsanctified], [sinister].

[It was a cold], [sinister day].

Compound predicate and coordinated clauses (author's punctuation):

[He opened the door] [and walked straight in].

[He opened the door](,) [and walked away into the night].

Long subject phrase or clause (comma ban):

[What we need] [is plenty of time].

[A tall man standing by the door] [asked for my help].

BUT: [I offered my help to the tall man standing by the door].


Most English intonations units in writing are indicated using punctuation. Some are not, however.

Sentences with compound predicates may or may not have a comma, depending on the context. And in sentences with long subjects (phrase or clause), no punctuation should separate the 🇨​​​​​🇴​​​​​🇷​​​​​🇪​​​​​ elements of the sentence, regardless of the length of the subject.

Interestingly, subjects/topics in Turkish sentences, regardless of their length, tend to form separate intonation units.


Intonation Units in Turkish

In Turkish, the elements below tend to be pronounced as separate intonation units:

Grammatical or logical subject-topic (whether short or long) (topic-marking):

[Zavallı], [gözlerine iki gözlük üst üste takar].

The poor fellow puts on two pairs of glasses, one over the other.

[“Oh doydum.”] [diyen], [kendini sırtüstü çimenlere attı].

One of the kids would say, “Oh, I've had enough,” and would throw himself on the back on the grass.

Vasif Öngören Masalın Aslı Evrensel Basın Yayın

[Oralarda havayı], [türlü hastalıkların iyileştirilmesine uygun ve iyi sanıyoruz].

We believe that the weather over there is suitable and good for curing all kinds of diseases.

Logical subject vs. genitive-possessive construction (izafet construction):

[Hasan’ın], [otomobilini park yerinden alması gerekir].

Hasan needs to get his car from the parking lot.

[Hasan’ın otomobilini park yerinden alması gerekir].

She/he needs to get Hasan's car from the parking lot.

Fronted object, locative coda for emphasis (topicalization):

[Seslerinde], [her zaman olmayan bir tartışma tonu vardı].

In their voices, there was a tone of arguing which was not always there.

Adverbial postpositional phrase or clause (kadar, rağmen, karşın, başka, göre, gibi, için) (adverbial construction):

[Beni karısına tanıtmadığı için], [ne yapacağımı bilmeden], [misafir odasının ortasında dikilip kaldım].

He had not introduced me formally to his wife, so I just stood there in the sitting room, uncertain what to do.

Introductory adverbial time/place phrase (fronted locative coda) and contrastive değil-construction (contrastive construction):

[Bu memlekette](,) [umumî his] [“muhabbet ve temayül” değil], [“nefret ve tahakküm”dür].

In this country, the general feeling is not “love and inclination” but “hatred and domination.”

Ahmet Hikmet Müftüoğlu, Çağlayanlar

Interrupting (parenthetical) appositive phrase or clause (appositive aside):

[Yaşlı adam](,) [onu], -[kara kuru çocuğu]- [ağlayarak göğsüne bastırdı].

The old man pressed him, the scrawny kid, to his chest.

Contrastive değil-construction, backgrounded phrase or clause (backgrounding, afterthought):

[Ruhunu hâlâ tetkik etmiş değilim], [tutulduğum kadının].

I still haven't explored her soul—of the woman I love.

Topic-marking, object participial clause, conditional converbial clause, backgrounded personal pronoun (converbs):

[Beni](,) [nişanlın olarak kabul ettiğini senden duyarsam], [son derece mutlu hissedeceğim] [kendimi].

If I hear from you that you have accepted me as your fiancée, I will feel extremely happy.

Oğuz Atay, Bir Bilim Adamının Romanı

Topic-, focus-marking with clitics (da/de, bile, ise, ki) (topicalization, focusing), adverbial -erek clause, adverbial postpositional için-phrase or clause, compound predicate (compound sentence vs. compound predicate):

[İkisi de] [babalarını eteklerinden çekerek], [parmaklarından tutarak sürüklüyor], [bir yere oturtmak için] [götürmeye çalışıyorlardı].

They both were dragging their father by pulling their skirts, holding his fingers, and trying to sit him up somewhere.

Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil, Bir ölünün Defteri


Comparing to English, Turkish intonation units are less punctuated, even though the Turkish does not have the luxury of having a verb separate the easily confusable subject and object.

English and Turkish differ not only in their sentential distribution of intonation units and the use of respective punctuation but also in the distribution of the so-called comma intonation or appositional intonation, used as a disambiguating (clarifying) tool.


Disambiguating Comma Intonation & Appositional Intonation in English

Linguists use the terms comma intonation and appositional intonation to describe our inherent vocal tactics to make what we say sound integral or essential (by saying without interruption or by maintaining the same pitch), or we can make it sound parenthetical or nonessential (by pausing and changing the pitch to undertone).

In English, a comma/ appositional intonation is often used to describe a specific intonation contour assigned to elements whose meaning depends on specific intonation markers. In other words, such intonation pattern is both disambiguating and contextual.

The elements that may require comma/ appositional intonation include parenthetical comments (asides), sentence (attitudinal) adverbs, vocatives, or nonessential relative clauses.

In writing, if the information provided is essential or integral, no punctuation should be used. Any nonessential or parenthetical information is indicated by commas, dashes, or parentheses.


Disambiguating Comma Intonation in English

The mechanism of disambiguating comma intonation is illustrated by the inherent ambiguity of English because-clauses.

For example, the sentence below can be voiced differently to mean two different things:

Mehmet must have done it because he was angry.

It can mean:

1. Because Mehmet was angry, he did it.

Gives Mehmet’s explanation why Mehmet did it.

2. Because Mehmet was angry, he must have done it.

Gives the speaker’s explanation / assumption why Mehmet did it.

In English, in speech, this ambiguity is resolved by intonation; in writing, by using punctuation:

1. Mehmet must have done it because he was angry.

[= Because Mehmet was angry, he did it.]

2. Mehmet must have done it, because he was angry.

[= Because Mehmet was angry, he must have done it.]

This ambiguity is easy to recognize if we rephrase the sentences with their opposites, by making the main clause negative:

1. Mehmet didn’t do it because he was angry.

[= Mehmet didn’t do it just because he was angry—he did it for some other reason.]

2. Mehmet didn’t do it, because he was angry.

[= He didn’t do it—for the reason of being angry.]

The comma inserted in the second variant signals the parenthetical nature of the because-clause by expressing the speaker’s opinion rather than the integral cause of the described event.

Some more examples of the disambiguating comma intonation used in because-clauses:

He’s at home because he’s not feeling well.


He’s at home, because I’ve just spoken to him.


I don’t have any money because I haven’t been paid.


I don’t have any money, because I checked my account in the morning.



Disambiguating Appositional Intonation in English

The classic example of an appositive intonation used in English is in relative clauses, which function as postmodifiers.

An essential (integral) relative clause functions to identify the noun it modifies; a nonessential (parenthetical) relative clause, separated by pauses or commas, functions to add information about the noun it modifies.

The students who had to take exams are tired.

[= The students had to take exams and are tired.]

The students, who had to take exams, are tired.

[= The students are tired; they had to take exams.]

A noun apposition or appositive noun phrase is a reduced relative clause that postmodifies the noun it follows. Essential appositive provides information that defines the noun, whereas nonessential appositive is parenthetical, added as an aside.


Essential vs. Nonessential Appositives

By definition, appositives are nonessential. However, just as with relative clauses, there are nonessential and essential appositives (called pseudo-appositives), and their ambiguity is resolved through intonation or commas and dashes (and parantheses):

My friend Selena Ramires likes riding horses.

[= The implication is that I might have other friends, but the one named Selena Ramires is what I want to talk about.]

I love the TV show The Simpsons.

[= There are many TV shows, and I love that particular one.]

On the other hand:

Selena Ramires, my friend, likes riding horses.

The Simpsonsmy favorite TV showhas been around for more than 20 years.

Essential appositives provide information necessary to identify the person or thing being spoken about. It specifies which one of many is meant by the writer.

For example:

Karl’s friend Emily works with him.

[= The implication is that Karl might have more than one friend.]

BUT: Karl’s friend, Emily, works with him.

[= The implication is that Karl has only one friend.]

Notice that the first sentence is still correct even if Karl has only one friend! So, when unsure, do not enclose such appositive phrases with commas/dashes to keep it safe.


When an appositive provides definitive information, commas should be omitted. Here are more examples of appositives that correctly omit the commas. Note how each appositive eliminates confusion by reducing the various ways readers could interpret each sentence:

The children’s song “Ring Around the Rosie” originated during the bubonic plague.

The country Denmark has had the same national flag longer than any other nation in history.

The French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte knowingly financed his Russian invasion with counterfeit money.

On the other hand, when the appositive provides an additional or parenthetical information that may be omitted, be sure to use appropriate punctuation.

For example:

Karl’s wife, Emily, works with him.

[= Karl has only one wife, and her name is Emily.]

BUT: Karl’s wife Emily works with him.

[= This is ambiguous, as the implication is that Karl might be a bigamist.]

Strictly speaking, the sentence Karl’s wife Emily works with him is not ambiguous, and Karl is most definitely a bigamist! The proper English requires that the word Emily be pronounced with appositional intonation (pauses) and written with enclosing commas:

Karl’s wife, Emily, works with him.

In today’s English, however, you will hardly ever hear anyone pronouncing the above sentence with any intervening pauses, unless the speaker wants to remind us about the name of Karl’s wife.

​Some English expressions have come to be pronounced as one intonation unit and written without punctuation just because they are too short and very commonly used. If we change the word order, the same expression will no longer be read as a single intonation unit:

Emily, Karl’s wife, works with him.

Other common (“incorrectly” punctuated) expressions:

  • We the people of the United States, …, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution)

  • After a while, Jack himself became convinced of his friend’s guilt.

  • The newspapers each sell for $5.


My brother Bill is going to join us.

[= May mean that EITHER I might have more than one brother, and the one named Bill is joining us, OR I have only one brother named Bill, and he is joining us.]

My brother, Bill, is going to join us.

[= I have ONLY ONE brother; by the way, his name is Bill (aside).]


Appositives & Stress

By providing the identifying information, essential appositives function as a stressing strategy. The difference between essential and nonessential appositives is in the positioning of the stress within the sentences.

For example (the stressed part shown bracketed):

[My brother Bill] is going to join us.

[= My brother Bill is the main point.]

[My brother], Bill, is going to join us.

[= My brother is the main point.]

[My friend Selena Ramires] likes riding horses.

[My friend], Selena Ramires, likes riding horses.

A question may help understand what is meant by an essential appositive by properly positioning the stress in the sentence.

For example, the seemingly meaningless sentence I have only one brother Bill can be meaningful in the following contexts, with the appropriate focuses specified:

A. How many brothers do you have?

B. I have [ONE BROTHER], Bill.

neutral focus

A. Do you have any more brothers or sisters?

B. I have [only ONE BROTHER], Bill.

contrastive focus

A. It seems that you have two brothers named Bill. Is the other one your stepbrother?

B. No, I have [only ONE BROTHER BILL].

contrastive focus


Disambiguating Comma Intonation in Turkish

Like English, Turkish, too, uses meaning-producing comma intonation. For example, the sentence below will have different meanings depending on the different comma intonation applied:

Yönetmen Hilal Saral’la birlikte monitörden çekilen görüntüleri izliyor.

Together with the director Hilal Saral, she/he is watching the footage recorded from the monitor.

Habertürk Magazin, İstanbul, posted on March 29, 2009

[Yönetmen], [Hilal Saral’la birlikte] [monitörden çekilen görüntüleri izliyor].

The director is watching the footage recorded from the monitor together with Hilal Saral.

[Yönetmen Hilal Saral’la birlikte] [monitörden], [çekilen görüntüleri izliyor].

Together with the director Hilal Saral, she/he is watching the footage on the monitor.

[Yönetmen], [Hilal Saral’la birlikte] [monitörden], [çekilen görüntüleri izliyor].

The director is watching the footage on the monitor together with Hilal Saral.


Converbial -ip Clauses & Comma Intonation

Comma intonation can also determine the meaning of sentences with -ip clauses whose main verbs are negative.

Although -ip clauses are classified as adverbial converbs, they often function as coordinated clauses connected with the conjunction “and.” This is especially true if the main verb is negative.

If the verb in the main clause contains a negative suffix, the verb containing -ip may be understood as having either negative or positive meaning.

For example, the following sentence can be ambiguous:

Eve gidip onunla konuşmayacağım.

It can mean:

1. Eve gitmeyeceğim ve onunla konuşmayacağım.


2. Eve gideceğim fakat onunla konuşmayacağım.


As with other ambiguous sentences, an added comma can help disambiguate (clarify) its meaning:

Eve gidip onunla konuşmayacağım.

[= Eve gitmeyeceğim ve onunla konuşmayacağım.]

I won’t go home, and I won’t talk to him.


Eve gidip, onunla konuşmayacağım.

[= Eve gideceğim fakat onunla konuşmayacağım.]

I’ll go home, but I won’t talk to him.

[lit. After going home, I won’t talk to him.]



Furthermore, this construction can also be found in complement clauses :

Konuyu bilip (,) fark ettirmediğini tahmin ediyorum.

[= Konuyu bildiğini fakat ettirmediğini tahmin ediyorum.]

I have a feeling that you know about the matter, but you’re not giving it away.


Or in relative clauses:

Kökünden söküp çıkaramadığı elma ağacı hâlâ orada.

[= Kökünden sökemediği ve çıkaramadığı elma ağacı hâlâ orada.]

That apple tree that he wasn’t able to root out is still standing there.



Stress in -ip Clauses

In Turkish negative verbal sentences, the negative suffix -ma usually generates stress, causing it to fall on the syllable preceding it. So, if the speaker wants to convey the coordinated meaning, she will pronounce the sentence as one intonation unit, naturally positioning the stress on the syllable preceding -ma:

[Eve gidip onunla KONUŞmayacağım].

I won’t go home, and I won’t talk to him.


For the contrasting meaning, the speaker's comma intonation will indicate the separatedness of the subordinated and the main clauses, causing them to become two intonation units, each with its own stress. Thus, the sentence will have a double stress:

[Eve gidIP], [onunla KONUŞmayacağım].

I’ll go home, but I won’t talk to him.



Clitic da & Comma Intonation

In Turkish, when the negative suffix -ma occurs in combination with one of the clitics such as the interrogative mi or da, stress falls before whichever one occurs first in the sentence.

When it comes to the sentences above, as a contrasting and potentially clarifying strategy, Turkish speakers add the clitic da after the -ip clause to emphasize the contrastive meaning. The clitic da creates a pause and stresses the -ip clause, which emphasizes the adversative relation between the two verbs:

[Eve gidIP de] [onunla KONUŞmayacağım].

I’ll go home, but I won’t talk to him.


Normally, the clitic da would deemphasize the effect of the negative suffix -ma; however, because it's a complex adverbial sentence separated by comma intonation, the sentence retains its double stress.

The version of the sentence as a yes/no question does not fundamentally change its intonation contouring. The clitic da makes the stress somewhat more emphatic:

[Eve gidIP de] [onunla KONUŞmayacağım mı]?

I’ll go home, but I won’t talk to him.


The TDK prohibits using a comma after the clitic da, probably because the clitic naturally produces comma intonation and, therefore, would render the use of a comma redundant. However, this clitic does not always produce comma intonation, in particular, in its continuative function, and Turkish writers often put comma after the clitic da.

This, like many other punctuation matters in Turkish, calls for reconsideration.

Here are some more examples of questions with the clitic da:

Oralara gidip de(,) bakmadın mı?

You got all the way up there and didn't look?


Ahmet mesajı bulup da(,) anlamamış mı acaba?

I wonder if Ahmet found the message but didn’t understand it?


A few more sentences I have found in/borrowed from the available Turkish language reference books:

Bu havada herhalde evde oturup televizyon seyretmeyeceğiz!

We’ll hardly be staying indoors and watching the tally in this weather!


Fakat dakikalar geçiyor, odanın kapısı açılıp Behir Vecdi görünyordu.

As minutes passed, the doors in the room did not open and Behir Vejdi did not appear.

M. Yesari, Kırlangıçlar

...Türkçe okuyup yazmak bilmeyenler mebuslar intihap olunamazlar.

Persons who cannot read or write Turkish cannot be elected deputies.

Turkish Constitution, Article 12

Ayrılırken bir kere olsun arkama dönüp bakmadım.

Not once did I turn around and looked at him as I was leaving.


Türkçesi yoktu, bunun için yanına gelip bunları kendisine anlatayorduk.

He did not know Turkish, so we could not approach him and explain this to him.


Beni dükkânda görüp de (,) satıcı zannetmeyin.

When you see me in a shop, don't think I'm a saleswoman.