The English Secret

The English Secret

By: Robert Cohen
published in Cohen’s More Power To You, 2002

Just remember, there’s many an actor sleeping on the embankment tonight, with no soles to his shoes, for lack of an upward inflection. – Donald Sinden, English classical actor

For many years, American actors have lamented the fact that New York theatre audiences (and critics even more so) have reserved their greatest admiration for British actors. Just to name some recent English winners of the Broadway Tony Award: Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Smith, Janet McTeer, Diana Rigg, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Jacoby, Jeremy Irons, Ian McKellen, Roger Rees, Constance Cummings, Jessica Tandy, Stephen Dillane, Jennifer Ehle, and Pauline Collins have all taken home the coveted New York’s best actor/actress award during the past two decades. And in films, where there are no union restraints on non-national casting, British actors are not only ubiquitous, they are routinely earning high praise not only for their British and classical roles, but for playing contemporary Americans as well – with Rupert Everett, Jude Law, Kate Winslett, Ben Kingsley, Minnie Driver, Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Ian Holm, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and Alan Rickman coming quickly to mind. Most astonishingly, Anthony Hopkins recently played President Nixon and Emma Thompson played an American First Lady, both to high acclaim.

If there’s a single reason for this new British invasion, it is quite possibly the “English secret,” an acting technique that, while rarely taught in America, is a routine part of English actor training. The English secret is hardly obscure, however: it’s simply a mastery of the upward pitch inflection that is abundantly common in everyday speech on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed, in virtually every language.

Pitch inflections – they can be rising or falling – are buried in the deep structures of speech; they are as essential for communication in spoken languages as punctuation and syntax are in written ones. For example, the two English sentences:

“He’s going out?”


“He’s going out!”

employ identical words in the identical order; the only difference between the two is punctuation in the written form and pitch inflection in the spoken. In spoken English (as well as spoken French, German, Spanish, et. al.), a raised inflection on the last syllable firmly indicates a question, while a falling inflection indicates a statement. But that’s not all they do.

Indeed, conversation analysts have accorded pitch inflections a broad and primary sub-semantic role in all spoken communications. Willem J.M. Levelt writes, for example, “Intonation is… an expressive device. Pitch accent expresses the prominence of a concept, the interest adduced to it by the speaker, or its contrastive role. The melody of an utterance expresses a speaker’s emotions and attitudes. It is a main device for transmitting the rhetorical force of an utterance, its weight, its obnoxiousness, its intended friendliness or hostility. It also signals the speaker’s intention to continue or to halt, or to give the floor to an interlocutor.” And as to its ubiquity, Levelt concludes that the “relation between pitch range and intended attentional effect might well be universal in the world’s languages.”

Inflections thus serve many practical purposes in spoken syntax besides differentiating interrogatives from declaratives.

Specifically, we use upward inflections (denoted in this essay by a caret [^] before the raised syllable, or multiple carets [^^ and ^^^] for an even higher pitch inflection) for several reasons, among them:

  • to highlight a key word: “He plays many sports but particularly likes ^golf.”
  • to point out antithetical words: “Give the ball to ^^John, not ^Jim.”
  • to articulate a complex argument, or set of instructions: “Go ^left, then left a^^gain, then ^^^right….”
  • to stimulate a surge of excitement: “^Show me the ^^^money!”
  • to arouse enthusiasm: “Cry God for ^Harry, ^^England and ^^^Saint ^^^^George!”
  • to build increasing momentum in a mere listing of nouns or adjectives: “She is my ^goods, my ^^chattels; she is my ^house, my household ^^stuff, my ^^^field, my ^^^^barn, my ^^^^^horse, my ^^^^^^ox, my ^^^^^^^ass, my ^^^^^^^^anything.”

By contrast, we use downward inflections (denoted herein by one or more downslashes [] following the downwardly-inflected syllable) basically:

  • to create a sense of finality: “Our day is done.”
  • to complete an idea: “Two plus six is eight.”
  • to conclude an utterance: “I have nothing else to say.”

In general, upward inflections create liveliness and ongoing enthusiasm, while downward inflections create decisiveness and closure. The skillful deployment of both sorts of inflections, and of the infinite possible gradations between them, transmits – both in life and on the stage – qualities of infectious energy, forceful authority, and a confident, expressive persona. Moreover, as these inflections are directly drawn from everyday speech, the qualities we perceive as infectious, authoritative and expressive are also perceived as natural and lifelike. The actor who can master inflections, therefore, is likely to be seen as not only as theatrically charismatic, but truthfully human, a delicious combination for the stage.

Let me briefly go over some of the basics of certain common inflections in everyday conversation – and consequently their effective use on the stage.


The rising inflection at the end of questions – particularly for questions one genuinely wishes to be answered – has some important acting implications.

The upward inflection at the end of these questions (which can also come on the penultimate syllable):

  • Are you ^sure?
  • Did you ^win?
  • Are you going to the ^game?
  • Did you ^like ^^it? (or sometimes ^^like ^it?)

specifically engages the person addressed; by actively soliciting an answer (even if one never comes), the inflection makes the question interactional. It is a sort of hook that draws the asker to the askee, and even a momentary pause following such an inflection is normally pregnant with situational possibilities, creating, on stage, genuine suspense. By powerfully engaging both actors, the one asking and the one asked, and by creating a dynamic interaction (instead of a mere exchange of information) between them, such a question also engages the audience.

Not all questions genuinely solicit answers, however. Some apparent questions are in fact implicit criticisms – normally denoted by a falling inflection:

  • Are you sure (as if to add “you idiot!”)
  • Are you going to the game (as if to add “instead of to my party?”)

The downwardly inflected question seeks to confer humiliation rather than solicit a response; instead of hooking the askee, it figuratively looks down one’s nose. Compared to its upwardly inflected counterpart, it is less interactional, and therefore less inducive of suspense or dynamic momentum. Actors unduly prone to such inflections may be trying to project an attitude – but they generally rob their own performances of interactive vibrancy and magnetism.


Upward inflections are crucial in indicating both parts of an antithesis, with the preferred alternative getting a higher inflection than its counterpart:

  • Not ^left, but ^^right.
  • It’s ^^right, not ^left.

Notice that the preferred word (“right” in this case) is inflected further upward regardless of which position – first or second – it has in the sentence. Similarly:

  • I like ^^June, not ^May
  • ^May is fine, but ^^June’s divine!

That inflections are crucial for communication becomes even more evident when we pose antitheses to children, or persons with less-developed intellectual skills:

  • Don’t ride your bike in the ^street, ride on the ^^^^sidewalk!
  • Ride your bike on the ^^^^sidewalk, not in the ^street.

Antitheses, of course, are the stuff of logic, the push and pull of argumentation; by defining both sides of a dialectic, antitheses make the general specific. Shakespeare, of course, depended heavily on them (“It’s ^^Helena, not ^Hermia I love” “Give every man thy ^^ear, but few thy ^voice”), but so do all dramatists whose characters believe they have something important to say.


Key or “operative” words generally indicate implied antitheses, with the antithetical term understood but unstated. They too are usually highlighted by an upward inflection:

  • Ann’s going to Phila^delphia tomorrow. (instead of to Chicago)
  • Ann’s going to Philadelphia to^morrow (instead of the day after tomorrow)
  • ^Ann’s going to Philadelphia tomorrow (instead of Jane going there)
  • Ann’s ^going to Philadelphia tomorrow (instead of coming back from there)

Notice that if this were simply a statement of fact, and did not contradict any previous assumption (as “Ann’s going to Chicago tomorrow.”) it would, in normal conversation, be largely uninflected. Which is one reason you rarely find simple statements of fact in dramatic works; they create neither suspense nor momentum.

Implied and often complex antitheses lurk everywhere in logical speech. As in Horatio’s urging to the Ghost:

If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease and grace to me…

As good is antithetical to the implied (but unstated) bad, it would ordinarily be given a lifted pitch accent. And as thee and me are, if not precisely antithetical, then at least two sides of a spirit/human equation, they too would, for greatest clarity, be pointed by upward inflections. The urging becomes a more strongly articulated interaction when Horatio says:

If there be any ^good thing to be done,
That may to ^^thee do ease | and grace to ^^^me…

A millisecond pause after “ease,” here indicated by a vertical line [|], further articulates the different presumed desires of the Ghost (physical comfort, relief of purgatorial suffering) versus those of Horatio (spiritual fulfillment, state of divine knowledge). A mastery of the inflections in this passage can then touch on subtle but profound meanings that at first seem tangential to the core goal or objective (“Speak to me!” which follows immediately) of the speech.


And finally, upward inflections provide, in our daily conversation as well as on stage, a powerful momentum, carrying the central idea of a sentence through its natural speaking and breathing pauses (usually marked in the written text by commas) that separate clauses, phrases, or separate items on a list. Thus:

^Well, I went to the ^store that your mother told me ab^out, and bought some ^grapes, some as^^parag^us, some ^^^peas, some ^^^^cauliflow^er, a ^^^^^newspap^er, and some ^freshly ^baked ^^^^^^bread\
(Normally, the pitch on “bread” would start very high, as the apex of the list, and then slide down the scale by word’s end.)

On stage, this momentum is quite simply what makes drama dramatic. And momentous.

Returning to Horatio’s speech to the Ghost, we can see that a series of rising and falling inflections create, not only an appealing musicality (which Horatio might feel particularly suitable for invoking a spirit), but the articulation of an escalating appeal to a reluctant responder.

^Stay, illusion!
If thou hast any ^sound, or ^use of ^^voice,
^^^Speak to me.

If there be any ^^good thing to be done,
That may to ^^thee do ease and grace to ^^^me,
^^^^Speak to me!\

If thou art ^^^privy to thy country’s ^^^fate,
Which happily fore^^^^knowing may av^^^^oid,
^^^^^O ^^^^^^speak!

That this should be an escalating appeal is a situational necessity: Horatio doesn’t actually want to make three requests, he would be most happy if the Ghost would answer him on the first “Speak to me.” But the Ghost doesn’t – and Horatio has to try again. And try harder. This “build” is not merely an escalation of pitches, of course, it is a build in intensity, in desire, in emotion; it is an escalation of the fear that the “country’s fate” is in peril, and in the fervent hope that foreknowledge – and consequent action – can save the nation. It is, in other words, captivating drama, and it captures not merely the audience’s attention, but their sympathy and participation.

Pitch changes here are a mini-concerto of in-line and between-line builds. The slight intralinear pitch build from sound to use of voice dramatizes Horatio’s growing hope that while it would be wonderful if the Ghost could make sound, it would be far better if he could actually speak. The more multifaceted interlinear builds from “Stay” to “Speak” to a second “Speak” to a final “O speak!” shows Horatio trying harder with each request. Similarly the interlinear build from “use of voice” to “good thing” to “privy” to “fate” to “foreknowing” and “avoid” accelerates those arguments with which Horatio supports his request.


Making these everyday inflections part of everyday acting is, however, a tougher task than one might expect. One might reasonably ask that, if inflections are simply a part of ordinary speaking, why must actors be taught to make them? Why don’t they just do this naturally?

Well, they do, but only if they are fully committed to pursuing their character’s goal with the other people onstage.

Let’s make no mistake about it: actors who are truly “experiencing” their roles onstage, as Stanislavsky proposed, will be speaking from their character’s mind (or heart) as well as through their character’s mouth, and their inflections will always be natural. And therefore perfect.

But that’s much easier said than done. For the fact is that actors normally must speak words they don’t themselves think up, but have in fact memorized out of a book written by someone else.

Moreover, they often in accents or linguistic styles (verse, for example) that don’t come naturally to them in their daily lives.

It is therefore inescapable that in many cases actors – including veteran professionals – will find themselves, at least in early rehearsals, essentially reciting memorized lines rather than speaking words derived solely from their character’s situation. For the fact is that acting a scripted and memorized role is a fundamentally unnatural way to initiate speech. And unnatural inflections often result. And worse, through constant repetition in rehearsals, these unnatural (and decidedly non-interactive and undramatic) inflections often find their way into actual productions.

As an example of recitational inflections, consider the first words of the pledge of allegiance recited by schoolchildren throughout the United States.

I pledge allegiance
To the flag
Of the United States of America\…

The inflections fall (one might say “die”) because they are not addressed to anyone, and they are not uttered in response to any situation. As an exercise makes clear, when someone truly imagines a situation from which such an utterance could logically derive (as someone actually pledging his allegiance to the flag of an adopted new country, in his own words, at the moment he first sets eyes on it), the inflections would be more like

“I pledge al^legiance
To the ^^flag
Of the United States of Am^^^erica!”

Thus in order to make the shift from unnatural to natural (and thereby dramatic) inflecting, actors must learn to make the transition from reciting memorized texts – whether the pledge of allegiance or the part of Hedda Gabler – to speaking such texts as though the words had sprung spontaneously from their own minds, and for the purpose of winning their characters’ goals. Whether to address this directly, by calling attention to inflections and such “technical” aspects of vocal delivery, or indirectly, simply by working on the goals and tactics of each character, remains an open question, but I think it is useful to proceed with the tentative answer of “some of each,” depending, certainly, on the text and persons (and time) involved. And, in any case, the subject should certainly be addressed, or at least discussed, during any period of serious actor training.


The actor’s use of pitch inflections has been discussed – at least in England – for at least two and a half centuries. As early as 1750, the Englishman John Hill wrote of “monotonous actors” who have “too frequent repetitions of the same inflections. When they have blank verse put into their mouths, [they]… seem to think it a duty to close every sentence an octave below.”

But we shouldn’t relegate Hill’s remarks on inflections merely to a purely external acting technique; Hill was actually an early advocate of “natural” acting (the actor “must feel every thing strongly that he would have his audience feel.”). And Konstantin Stanislavsky, the patron saint of “internal” acting, spoke eloquently about the external importance of inflections to produce not just clarity but also feelings:

The external word, by means of intonation, affects one’s emotion, memory, feelings. …Intonations and pauses, in themselves, possess the power to produce a powerful emotional effect on the listener.

Just what did Stanislavsky mean by “intonation?” It was his term (or rather his translator’s term) for an “upward twist to the sound of the last syllable.” He particularly prized the upward inflection for its ability to create suspense and sustain an idea through a breathing pause:

Give an upward twist to the sound of the last syllable of the last word before the comma…. [and] leave the high note hanging in the air for a bit. …Almost like the warning lift of a hand, [it] causes listeners to wait patiently for the end of the unfinished sentence. Do you realize how important this is? [It provides] the satisfaction of lifting your phonetic line before a comma and waiting confidently, because you know surely that no one will interrupt or hurry you.

Stanislavsky made clear that this was not merely a single upward twist, but a complex scoring of syllables, which he could only describe in musical terms: “This rising melodic line can take on all kinds of twists and go to all kinds of heights: in intervals of thirds, fifths, octaves, with a short steep rise, or a broad, smooth, small swing and so on.” To an actor who, while storming through Othello’s great “Pontic Sea” speech, did not know how to build his argument, Stanislavsky advised, “Not so flat… put some design in! …See that the second measure is stronger than the first, the third stronger than the second, the fourth than the third. But no shouting! Noise is not power! Power lies in heightening.” To an actor who was merely shouting, Stanislavsky leveled a particularly trenchant attack: “Don’t you know that the power lies in the logic, the coherence of what you are saying? And you destroy it. When you need power, pattern your voice and your inflections in a varied phonetic line, from top to bottom. When you need real power in your speech, forget about volume, and remember your rising and falling inflections.”

But in our time, it has been not the Russians, and certainly not the Americans, but the English who have taken the lead on this matter. Cicely Berry, the distinguished long-time voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is a major advocate: “Where there is a break within the line… [usually] it is simply a poise on a word – i.e., the word holds and lifts for a fraction of a moment before it plunges into the second half of the line. This poise is necessary for the ear of the listener in that it allows a space, a still moment, for us to clock the key word in the line, and so be ready for the information in the second half of the line… Very often, when we do not understand a speech, it is because this shaping has not been attended to.”

English director Michael Langham, formerly artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre and the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, waxes more poetical but to the same end: “If we take a downward inflection, we finish the journey. Keep the journey going, keep the inflection buoyantly up, until we reach the end of the trip.”

None of this was ever mentioned – much less discussed and/or taught – during my studies at the Yale Drama School the 60s, nor by Lee Strasberg when I attended the Actors Studio in the same period, nor was the subject brought up in the major American acting books of the 60s and 70s – certainly not by Hagen, Benedetti, or McGaw. Nor did I broach the subject in my first acting book (Acting Power) of 1978. Indeed, it would take a brave American in the heyday of the Actors Studio – the 50s, 60s, or 70s – to even mention such seemingly technical aspects of acting performance as inflections and vocal pitch, which were addressed, if at all, by directors giving line readings to actors (e.g. “No, Janet, it’s not ‘wherefore ^art thou, Romeo,’ it’s ‘wherefore art thou ^^Romeo’”!)

And so I first learned about the importance of pitch inflections from a British actor: Brewster Mason, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company who spent several of his last years teaching on my campus during the early 1970s. “American actors don’t know how to give the feed!” Brewster would complain to me, referring specifically to that upward inflection at the end of a line that sets up a cue in such a way that the actor who speaks the next line can knock it out of the park. I, and most of my American colleagues, considered Mason’s complaint absurdly old-fashioned at the time; even demeaning: as if the actor’s goal was really to be a restaurant waiter. But I’ve changed my views: “Feeding” your acting partner with charged, upwardly-inflecting cues (“Are you going ^^out?), and being aggressively fed by your partner in return, creates drama that is powerfully interactive. I’m not always sure whether this is best addressed from the inside (by helping the actor live the part fully) or from the outside (“try lifting that last syllable a bit, OK?”), but it’s clear to me that an actor’s awareness of inflections in life, and their importance in creating the dynamics and momentum of a great a stage production, leads to enhanced performances wherever the process originates.

Mastery of inflections is not the most important skill an actor must employ, of course. It’s probably not even in the top ten. But in a field as competitive as professional stage acting, where only one in a thousand succeed, and only one in a thousand of those (rising inflection there too!) will get succeed sufficiently to have a lifetime career, the extra margin of excellence will make all the difference. At minimum, an awareness of the nature of inflections in normal conversation can key a director or coach as to when an actor is not fully experiencing (or thinking) the part, and what work needs be done to correct this. At maximum, inflectional mastery can help an actor deliver five things absolutely crucial for professional success: clear articulation of ideas, dramatic momentum and suspense, excitement and charisma, brimming confidence, and (yes!) believability.

For that’s the only secret of the English secret: Inflecting is Believing.

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