Thought groups are another aspect of spoken English rhythm that can have a beneficial impact on your intelligibility. Thought groups allow you to organize your speech into groups of words that make up a single idea (Grant, 2010). They help your listener(s) better understand the information in your speech by organizing your ideas into comprehensible “packages” that are easy to process (Grant, 2010).
Listen to the following examples. The first sentence does not use thought groups, while the second does:
The only thing I’m interested in is completing this project on time.
The second sentence is divided into two thought groups, with a very short pause in between. Every thought group in English also has a single focus word, which is usually the last content word in the thought group. The focus word usually has greater stress relative to the other words in the sentence. The focus word in the first thought group above is interested; in the second thought group, the focus word is time. (Note: Sometimes thought groups may contain only one word, as in this example.)
The sentence above contains 3 thought groups and 3 focus words.
Thought groups can be especially useful in presentations, speeches, debates, and other semi-prepared public speaking contexts, but creating thought groups will improve your intelligibility in both your conversational and formal speech.
It may not be easy to identify the boundaries of thought groups at first. If you’ve ever read a piece of writing out loud, you’ve probably noticed how certain types of punctuation (commas, semicolons, quotation marks, etc.) can separate thought groups. However, thought groups are not always separated by punctuation (as in the sentence, The only thing I’m interested in is completing this project on time.). Also, not every sentence will always be written down! Thought groups are a quality of speech, which are carried into writing with punctuation.
Finally, keep in mind that a single sentence may be divided into different thought groups, thereby affecting the meaning. Consider this silly example:
What does that sentence mean? Depending on how you divide the thought groups, the meaning can change (very dramatically in this case).
Woman without her man/ is nothing.
As this example illustrates, thought groups are a tool to help you clearly communicate your meaning, not something you have to “find” in every sentence you want to say. Different speakers can and do use thought groups differently.
Look at the following sentences, and identify (1) the most likely thought group boundaries and (2) the focus word in each thought group. Then, listen and compare with your predictions.
- The first item on our agenda is to address parking.
- I’d like to introduce my wife Nita.
- If you take care of the accounts I’ll handle the meeting.
- Microsoft CEO Bill Gates started a charity to fight poverty.
- My new phone is acting up so could you email me instead?
- The first item/ on our agenda/ is to address parking.
- I’d like to introduce my wife/ Nita.
- If you take care of the accounts/ I’ll handle the meeting.
- Microsoft CEO Bill Gates/started a charity/ to fight poverty.
- My new phone is acting up/ so could you email me instead?
Listen to the following phrases, and select the answer that best describes the meaning of the sentence. Pay attention to the thought group boundaries to help you do this!
- There were two hour long tests in this class.
Click for the answerThe course had two tests that were an hour long each.
- The course had tests that were two hours long.
- The course had two tests that were an hour long each.
- The British left waffles on the Falkland Islands.
Click for the answerThe left-wing political party of Britain is uncertain about the Falkland Islands.
- The left-wing political party of Britain is uncertain about the Falkland Islands.
- The British people placed breakfast foods on the shores of the Falkland Islands.
Let’s practice listening for and observing thought groups in action. Below is an excerpt of a TED Talk by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entitled “The danger of a single story.” This is an excellent example of how a speaker chooses her thought group boundaries to accomplish specific communicative goals. As mentioned earlier, public speaking is a context in which appropriate, thoughtful use of thought groups improve your intelligibility to a great extent.
Listen to the video as you read the text below, and make a note of where you think Adichie separates her thought groups. Then, click to see our answers.
I’m a storyteller and I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call the danger of the single story I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria my mother says that I started reading at the age of two although I think four is probably close to the truth so I was an early reader and what I read were British and American children’s books I was also an early writer and when I began to write at about the age of seven stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading all my characters were white and blue-eyed they played in the snow they ate apples and they talked a lot about the weather how lovely it was that the sun had come out now this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria I had never been outside Nigeria we didn’t have snow we ate mangoes and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.
Try another one. Below is an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Again, listen to the clip above as you read the text below, and make a note of where you think Dr. King separates his thought groups. Then, click to see our answers.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow I still have a dream it is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi a state sweltering with the heat of injustice sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character I have a dream today!
What do you do now?
First, we recommend listening to excerpts of well-known speeches or other types of public speaking to get a sense of how experienced rhetoricians use thought groups for style and effect. Take a look at President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address, or you can also explore our list of recommended TED Talks, all of which come with written transcripts. Compare the use of thought groups here with thought groups in everyday conversations, such as those you hear in TV shows. What differences do you notice?
Second, come see a speech consultant to practice using thought groups in your own speech!