10 Thought Groups: Overview

Regardless of topic, one of the pronunciation features most influential for enabling an audience to understand what one says is the suprasegmental feature of thought grouping. Thought groups are so vital because they are the foundation upon which so many other suprasegmental features are built. Thought groups, in general, refer to any discrete stretch of speech that forms a coherent message, and typically…

  1. are grammatically and semantically sound;
  2. are set off by pauses before and after;
  3. include one prominent element (prominence, see Part 4); and
  4. have an intonation contour built around that focused element.

It’s important to note, though, that there is no one rule-governed method for dividing an utterance into thought groups. A fast speaker may only pause once during an utterance, while a slow speaker could pause up to four times in the same utterance. Listen to the following examples:


Audio transcript: The boy saw the man / with a telescope.

Audio transcript: The boy saw / the man with a telescope

Notice the difference? Both recordings have two thought groups, but they are not the same. In fact, the meaning of the sentence will probably be interpreted differently by listeners. The first sentence suggests that the boy, using a telescope, saw a man; the second suggests that the boy saw a man who was carrying a telescope. As noted, thought groups affect the positioning of other suprasegmental features, such as prominence, intonation, and rhythm. Notice which words are prominent in both examples, and how the intonation curve shifts as the prominence shifts.

However, when learning thought groups, there are a handful of grammatical structures which are typically used to express a single thought group:

Common Grammatical Structures Expressed in Thought Groups

(used with permission from Sandy Peterson, long-time Iowa State University pronunciation instructor)

  1. Article + adjective + noun (…the large molecule…)
  2. Subordinating conjunction + noun + verb (…because the experiment failed…)
  3. Preposition + article + noun (…in the graph…)
  4. Verb + object (…use a dictionary…)
  5. Relative pronoun + noun + verb (…which she solved…)
  6. Verb + adverb (…rotated quickly…)
  7. Article + noun + verb (…the student agreed…)
  8. Verb + direct object + preposition + indirect object (…hand it to him…)

If you consider the role thought groups play on the positioning and use of other suprasegmentals, you can see how vitally important they are for producing intelligible speech. Using logical thought groups can help a speaker sound more fluent, and it reduces the cognitive load of the listener, which will allow them to better understand your intended message.

Activities

  1. Below is a recording device along with six audio recordings. First, listen to an audio recording while following along with the transcript provided above each recording. Then, when you feel ready, use the recording device to record yourself saying the line. Compare your recording with the audio recording. Reflect on how thought groups affect the way which you speak.

The three largest cities in the United States are New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

People are said to think, play, and work at their best when the 24-hour temperatures average between 63 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit.

Three American holidays in the summer are Memorial Day, The 4th of July, and Labor Day.

On Groundhog Day, in February, if the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.

If you break a mirror, then you will have seven years of bad luck, unless you throw the broken pieces into a moving stream.

Halloween, which in Europe honors the dead, but in the United States celebrates childhood, points to the adoration of youth in America.

 

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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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