3 Rules to Using Thought Groups in American English

Jan 18, 2021

3 Rules to Using Thought Groups in American English

1/18/2021

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In spoken English, your pronunciation is just as important as your rhythm! An important part of rhythm is thought groups - the way you pause between groups of words and use intonation to add meaning to your message. This video will teach you 3 rules to using thought groups - when to pause, when NOT to pause, and how to chunk your words together so they sound natural!

(Video Transcript)

 

Hi, I’m Julie with San Diego Voice and Accent, and in this video you’ll learn how to use thought groups to improve the rhythm of your spoken English.

 

Look at this sentence, and I want you to think about the rhythm. How do you think it would be said in a normal conversation?

 

Maria said the student is asleep.

 

I purposely didn’t include any punctuation other than the period at the end, and without the punctuation, you don’t really know where you should pause when reading this sentence. And the pauses are crucial to the meaning of this sentence.

 

You could say, “Maria,” said the student, “is asleep.”

 

With this type of pausing, the student is the one who is speaking. 

 

But you could use this type of pausing:

 

Maria said, “The student is asleep.”

 

Now Maria is the one who is speaking. 

 

What are thought groups?

In spoken English, we use pauses to help break up our speech into meaningful chunks of information. These chunks of information are called thought groups. 

 

Another way to describe a thought group is this: it’s a group of words that convey a message. It can be one word, or it can be many words, it just depends on the context and the message you are trying to convey. 

 

In the example above, both options could be correct depending on the context. However, if the student is the one who is asleep, there’s only one way that I could read that sentence. I’d have to say, Maria said, “The student is asleep”, not the other option. 

 

In this example, in order to convey the correct information, I used two thought groups. One thought group was “Maria said”, and the other thought group was “the student is asleep.” 

 

But if it was the other way around, and Maria was the one who was asleep, I’d have to use three thought groups: The first thought group would be the word “Maria”. The second thought group would be the words “said the student”, and the third thought group would be the words “is asleep”. 

 

And to signal that I’m using different thought groups, I changed the intonation of my voice and I paused at the end of each thought group. I’ll say these sentences again using different thought groups, and I want you to listen to the intonation of my voice. My voice will go down at the end of a thought group, or go up at the end of a thought group, and I’m going to pause between thought groups.

 

 “Maria,” said the student, “is asleep.”

 

Maria said, “The student is asleep.”



So let’s recap: I’ve discussed thought groups, which are groups of words that convey meaning, and they can consist of one word or many words, depending on the message. Then to signal that I’ve used different thought groups, I changed the intonation of my voice, and I paused between thought groups.

 

Thought group options

Now here is the tricky thing about using thought groups in spoken English. Sometimes, there’s only one right way to do it, like in the examples I’ve used so far in this video. But other times, there could be many correct ways to use thought groups, many options, and it’s up to the speaker to decide how they want to say it. So this makes it difficult to teach the concept of thought groups in right and wrong terms. There’s a spectrum of what is acceptable. 

 

However, that being said, there are some options that would not sound natural, and native speakers would not be very likely to use thought groups in that way.

 

Let’s use this sentence again, and I’ve already discussed two thought group options that would work for this sentence, depending on the context. Now listen to a third option and tell me if it sounds natural.

 

Maria said the / student is / asleep.

 

That didn’t sound natural to me, and maybe it was also difficult to understand what I was trying to say when I used those particular thought groups. This would not be a good option to use. Not only does it sound unnatural, but it also gets in the way of understanding the message. 

 

How to use thought groups: 3 rules

But how do you know how to break up your message into thought groups that sound natural and convey your message? Here are some general rules about thought groups that you can follow, but remember, there could be more than one right way to do it, so use your best judgment.

 

Rule #1: There should not be a pause between articles, prepositions, and possessive pronouns and the nouns they precede. This means there isn’t typically a pause between the words in these phrases:

 

The store

 

At school

 

Or my daughter.

 

Rule #2: Infinitives are usually kept together, so there isn’t typically a pause between:

 

To go

 

To eat

 

Or to drive.

 

And rule #3: Phrases usually begin with conjunctions, rather than end with conjunctions. This means it’s much more common to say:

 

Do you want coffee / or tea?

 

Versus

 

Do you want coffee or / tea?



Thought group practice

Let’s practice using thought groups in this sentence. I’m going to read you 3 options, and I want you to listen and choose the option that sounds the most natural. There can be more than one option. 

 

My car is at the | repair shop so I need | you to drive me to | work.

My car is at the repair shop | so I need you | to drive me to work.

My car is at the repair shop | so I need you to drive me to work.



I hope this video helped you to use thought groups to improve the rhythm of your spoken English. Thanks for watching, and let me know how I can help you master the American accent!