It is a truth widely acknowledged that pronunciation is a central and difficult element in the study of English. This is so because of the intricacies and peculiarities of English as a language, which arise from a very complex phonemic system and a rich use of suprasegmental elements, such as rhythm and intonation. Nothing surprising, then, in the fact that there is such a long tradition of English Phonetics and Phonological Studies. It is an endeavour which spans over a century and can be traced back to Daniel Jones, who published the first edition of his English Pronouncing Dictionary in 1917. From then on many important scholars, such as Gimson, Halliday or Wells –to name but a few leading figures-, have contributed their efforts to scrutinize, analyze and dissect the often puzzling ways in which the pronunciation of English works. The result is an impressive body of theory that any linguistics student can consult, refer to and, hopefully, in the fullness of time, enlarge.

Alas, the outlook for the learner of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) has been much less favourable. As the twentieth century progressed and little by little English was becoming a lingua franca, the amount of work devoted to English Language Teaching (ELT) grew exponentially. However, while grammar and vocabulary were always sufficiently dealt with, only a small part of those teaching materials was intended to facilitate the acquisition of good English pronunciation. And that narrow slice was almost invariably conceived of as a set of activities to be carried out in the classroom with the assistance of the teacher, whose help, more often than not, was more reliant on his or her intuition, or his or her capacities as a native speaker, than on a sound grounding in phonetics and phonology. Very little was available, therefore, if anything at all, in the way of reference books for the non-specialist or autodidact. Just for a case in point, we only have to think that the first edition of English Pronunciation in Use, belonging to the world-famous series English in Use, published by Cambridge University Press, was launched only eight years ago, in 2007, twenty-two years after the best-selling volume dedicated to grammar, English Grammar in Use.

Needless to say, the bulk of what is published about pronunciation concerns the segmental level. Students are thought to have enough problems with English vowels and consonants already; it is rather difficult stuff. And when they are only starting to find their bearings with individual phonemes, the mysteries of connected speech come along to complicate matters further. So the outcome is that the learner rarely gets to the point where issues such as the different English tones, contrastive intonation or the placement and displacement of the nuclear accent are addressed. These are reserved for really advanced students or undergraduates enrolled in English Studies at university, even though suprasegmental features are a critical component of the English language. So crucial are they, in fact, that ignorance in this area may have dire consequences for communication.

As John Wells (2006) points out, English native speakers are used to making allowances for the mistakes non-native speakers make in terms of individual sounds, grammar or vocabulary, but they are seldom aware that the intonation system of English is rather different from that of other languages, Spanish in particular, maybe because intonation works at a more unconscious level. It is not a subject that is addressed at school or talked about in general, and knowledge about it tends to be implicit rather than explicit. This is the reason why English native speakers normally take for granted that the utterances non-native speakers produce might be flawed in their grammar or inaccurate in their vocabulary but will meet their expectations as far as intonation is concerned. Sadly, very often this is not the case, and then confusion, misunderstanding or even embarrassment ensue.

The general situation between English and Spanish speakers, regarding pronunciation, is anything but easy. As already stated, English and Spanish are very different languages. Their phonemic systems are really poles apart, with almost no correspondence between phonemes of the two languages, although many look deceptively similar, and other features like stress, rhythm and intonation working in a nearly opposite manner as well. This a source of trouble for Spanish and English speakers alike and usually results in an unmistakable foreign accent when a member of one speech community makes an attempt at the language of the other, a failure which cuts both ways. It goes without saying that, if Spanish students of English are to acquire a reasonable proficiency in pronunciation, a certain degree of dedication to the subject is needed. But in the Spanish education system, always focused on vocabulary and grammar, this effort has been conspicuous by its absence.

No doubt these Spanish students grappling –or not- with the adversities of English pronunciation could benefit a great deal from teaching materials specially designed for them. To wit, materials dealing with the specific problems they have to overcome, those arising from their phonetic and phonological system, which are not necessarily the same as the ones which affect other languages. But until quite recently these kinds of resources have been scarce and difficult to come by. In the last few years, however, the works of Estebas, Mott and Ortiz-Lira have partially filled the void.


Purpose of this dissertation


This work is at the core of the aforementioned problems since its main goal is to make a taxonomy of exceptions to the Last Lexical Item Rule (LLI rule), a suprasegmental element which is given very little attention in English class and for that reason remains largely unknown to students of EFL. What is more, the LLI rule and its exceptions constitute one of those English traits that function, as said earlier, in an implicit rather than explicit way: neither native speakers nor students are usually aware of it, but unfortunately, it is also a matter the ignorance of which is very likely to lead to misunderstanding.

The dissertation presented here consists of a brief description of how the LLI rule works –that is to say, how the main accent is assigned within the intonation phrase (IP)-, followed by a full catalogue of situations where that rule does not apply.

The resulting taxonomy has two main characteristics:

  1. It is meant to be as comprehensive as possible. It draws on previous works of the same kind and includes all the available and relevant information in an principled way.
  2. It is supported by naturally occurring data. The audio examples which form the basis for the analysis have not been recorded in the phonetic lab but drawn from real life.


Methodology and sources


Given the nature of this work, two different kinds of tasks were carried out.

To begin with, I had to revise the literature on the subject and collate from it all the exceptions to the LLI rule in order to devise a taxonomy which was thorough and useful. On some occasions, I found divergent views about the same phenomenon. Then I tried to reflect and analyze the various approaches and, if possible, reach a conclusion. In the cases in which I had a view of my own or thought that the information available could be in some way qualified or improved, I chose not to remain on the safe side and risked my own opinions. All this I did with the problems affecting Spanish speakers always in mind. So, whenever germane to the discussion, a comparison of the strategies employed by the two languages has been made.

As for the sources and the status of the issue, I found the more complete treatment of the subject dealt with here in books written from the point of view of EFL, mainly in Wells (2006) and Ortiz-Lira (2000). The taxonomies of exceptions to the LLI rule presented there were more or less fused to form the backbone of this one, to which additional information due to other authors was added. All the sources are included in the references at the end of this work.

A completely different part of the job was to find and record the examples that illustrate the different cases. This involved many hours of listening to spoken English. I mainly used radio interviews, tv programs and films as sources. The speakers come from very different parts of the English speaking world. So alongside a perfectly standard RP accent many others from different areas of the UK and US, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Australia will be found. I provided information about the origin of the speaker and his or her accent as accurately as possible.

The use of different dialects in the examples is an important feature of this work and not in the least accidental. The reason for adopting such an approach is twofold. On the one hand, my aim is to highlight that the phenomenon analyzed here is not linked to any particular variety of English but affects the language as a whole. On the other, it is my contention that a diversity of accents will present a more faithful and vivid picture of the richness of English, thereby making this dissertation more enjoyable and also more profitable. This might also prove to be an asset if this work is to be used in English pronunciation class, as I intend it to be.

Occasionally I did not have the example I needed, or wanted to illustrate some key concepts in a particular way. In those cases, I purposely devised the examples and recorded them myself. While this undoubtedly produces worse results than commissioning the task to a native speaker, it has the added advantage of showing whether the author of this dissertation is capable of actually performing what he is writing about or not.

I have also analyzed some of the examples with the computer program Pratt in order to show where the nucleus of the IP is located and describe the deaccentuation processes that might take place in terms of frequency changes.


Further justification of the contents


In an article entitled What is important in intonation for EFL? (Wells, 2012), John Wells made reference to the speech given by Francis Nolan, professor of phonetics at Cambridge University, in the 2012 English Phonetic Conference in China. Nolan addressed the thorny issue of what should be taught to learners intonation-wise and established three desirable goals and three ways of achieving them (the third goal at a considerable distance from the other two in terms of importance):

  1. Intelligibility, which is to be accomplished by “the mastery of accentuation (involving stress placement, rhythm, and pitch prominence achieved by a reduced inventory of pitch accents)”.
  2. Avoidance of inadvertent offence, attainable by “the eradication of any L1-influenced phonetic realizations of pitch accents which might convey unintended meaning in English”.
  3. Mastery of intonational nuances (lowest in priority), which involves “the acquisition of a more complete set of intonational pitch contrasts”.

Then Wells summarizes this approach in the following approving terms: “Thus he sees the mastery of English tonicity (aka accentuation, aka placement of the nucleus/tonic) as the most important goal, much more so than mastery of the fine details of pitch contours in tone contrasts. I agree wholeheartedly”.

In other words, both experts consider tonicity –namely, the LLI rule and its exceptions- a matter of paramount importance in the teaching of intonation in EFL because they agree that an inadequate command of it can be a source of intelligibility failure. Tonicity is, therefore, the key feature for non-native English speakers to master. It is important to highlight that Nolan and Wells place it ahead of the other two Ts, tonality and tone, in priority[1].


Relation with other subjects of the Grado de Estudios Ingleses


There are many good reasons to maintain that the subject of this dissertation is closely related to the majority of the modules studied in the Grado de Estudios Ingleses at the UNED. This relationship is reciprocal: the decisions the speaker makes about focalization have a bearing on other linguistic levels –the syntactic, semantic or pragmatic ones, for instance-, while at the same time some awareness of the processes studied in those areas is indispensable for him or her to make the right choice about the placement of the nucleus and the deaccentuation of some parts of the IP. Here are, just by way of illustration, some interesting connections between a number of subjects studied in the Grado de Estudios Ingleses and the matter in hand.


Inglés instrumental


In this case the link is so obvious that it scarcely merits a mention. It is impossible to acquire a high level of proficiency in English without a good command of intonation in general and tonicity in particular. What is more, if we take the adjective “instrumental” in its more literal sense –that is, English conceived of as a tool for communication-, the matter studied here turns out to be essential since a poor grasp of it hinders intelligibility.




It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this connection. A quick look at the contents of this work will show that many of the processes here explained are reliant on grammatical or morphological notions (indefinite pronouns, adverbials, non-defining final relative clauses, cleft sentences, etc.). Occasionally this required knowledge becomes a bit more specialized. The concept of movement or transformation, studied in syntax, is crucial to understand why sometimes the nucleus is so far away from the end of the IP and the tail is so long. But this argument works in the opposite direction as well. Not only does pronunciation depend on grammar; grammar needs pronunciation to give the student a complete picture of how the language works. No matter how much grammar students learn, their command of English will always be at least partially flawed if they are unable to reproduce the texts they are dealing with –in actual speech or just in their minds- with the correct intonation.


Semántica/Pragmática/Análisis del discurso


These closely related disciplines deal with phenomena which are strongly influenced by the choices speakers make in terms of focalization. An analysis of these matters is beyond the scope of this work[2], but one has just to think of areas of study such as information structure, conversation analysis or presupposition to fully realize the importance of having a good knowledge of English tonicity.


Sociolingüística/Variaciones fonético-fonológicas


As stated earlier, this work tries to offer a rich palette of English dialects and, at the same time, make a comparison between the communicative strategies of English and Spanish. No doubt students concerned with phenomena such as variation, bilingualism and code-switching could benefit a good deal from an insight into the ways in which accent placement is decided.




The idea that intonation –and, more specifically, the choice of the nuclear accent within the IP- must be taken into account in translation studies may sound a bit far-fetched, but it is not by any means the case. Written language is also affected by intonation rules and processes because readers reproduce what they read in their minds[3]. So it is also a translator’s job to understand the influence a tonicity system has in texts so as to reformulate them in languages where tonicity is decided upon different parameters. Just one little example: the greater tolerance English has to repetition –a staple worry for translators- can be better understood if we know that, unlike Spanish, English prescribes the routine deaccentuation of function words and old information, which makes the repeated item much more palatable. This awareness will enable the translator to make the necessary changes for the text not to sound monotonous in the target language.




Once established that in order to enjoy a literary text the reader has to hear it in his or her mind, the link between intonation and literature becomes just a matter of common sense. On a more practical level, an acquaintance with the rules of intonation would help hundreds of students struggling to scan poetry in Ejes de la Literatura Inglesa Medieval y Renacentista every year.

[1] For an explanation of the three Ts, see 2.1.

[2] Some reflections will be made in the conclusions, though.

[3] A good example of this process can be found in a text by Kurt Vonnegut