Questions about an author's tone are common on reading tests. Check out these tricks for figuring out the author's tone in a particular passage.
by Melissa Wilson
What is tone when it comes to writing?
It’s a simple question, but the answer can be rather complicated. In basic terms, tone usually refers to how a writer uses certain words in a specific way to convey non-verbal observations about specific subjects. Not only does tone help to deliver facts, but it delivers them with an attitude. With emotion. With a personal perspective.
Tone is sometimes used interchangeably with the voice of the author. They are very different. A writer’s voice is a perspective of their personality. The tone of a writer conveys their attitude about what is being writing about. If tone is combined with voice, then this will create a specific writing style that can be attributed to that writer.
There Are 9 Basic Types of Tone in Writing
Any emotion, any attitude, and any perspective can lay the foundation for a specific tone in writing. If you can come up with an adjective, then that can be a tone. This means if you look at tone with specificity, there is an infinite number that can be used.
That makes it a little difficult to begin developing your personal tone as a writing skill, so those infinite tones have been categorized into 9 different types. Let’s take a look at them in some detail.
1. Joyful: This tone in writing focuses on the positive emotions that are experienced in the moment of an action. If you eat something you like, then you feel joy. When you experience reciprocal love, you feel joy. Writers use this tone to create relationship-building experiences between their readers and their characters.
2. Serious: This tone in writing creates a level of suspense within the reader. It increases their focus because the concepts being offered are important.
3. Humorous: Being funny does more than make people laugh. It also makes them begin to think about difficult concepts in a way that feels safe. This tone in writing is often intended to draw the reader into a story or narrative so they can engage with certain facts or opinions the author feels are important to share.
4. Sad: Sadness is a very real part of the human condition. In many ways, our saddest days define who we are as people. When incorporated as a tone in writing, the reader become sympathetic with the characters or the author and this empathy will keep them engaged with the narrative.
5. Formal: This tone in writing is often seen from an academic standpoint. It requires structured language, higher reading skills, and presents more facts that can be proven than the opinions of the writer.
6. Informal: The goal of this content is to have an informal tone. It’s conversational, but still conveys a certain sense of expertise within the subject material.
7. Optimistic: There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today. Yet there is also a belief that the world can and will be a better place one day if we’re willing to work for it. This would be an example of an optimistic tone.
8. Pessimistic: When there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, it can feel like that bad stuff will only get worse. That kind of tone would be an example of being pessimistic. Pessimism is not realism. Being pessimistic means having a belief that something will never get better, even if the facts may seem to indicate otherwise.
9. Horror: This tone of voice is threatening in nature. It speaks to the core fears that people have and forces them to confront those fears.
Now there may be 9 basic types of tone in writing, but that doesn’t mean a writer is limited to using just one tone as they compose something. It is possible to use all of these tones in some way in specific instances. Having every character in a story be overly optimistic isn’t realistic. Even the most optimistic of people feel pessimistic from time to tome.
Yet there must also be an overall tone to the book that is reflective of the attitude a writer has to the overall story arc that is being offered. Mixing tones on the overall theme creates confusion because it changes the perspective.
This is why it is important to know the types of tone in writing and how they relate to the voice being used. With the right style, it becomes easier to communicate the key points a writer is trying to make to the reader.
Finding the tone as you read, however, is sometimes more challenging because you can't hear what is being said. You can see the words as you are reading.
It is the same with writing. Every adjective and adverb you use, your sentence structure, and the imagery you use will show your tone. The definition of "tone" in literature is the way the author expresses his attitude through his writing.
The tone can change very quickly or may remain the same throughout the story. Tone is expressed by your use of syntax, your point of view, your diction, and the level of formality in your writing.
Examples of tone in a story include just about any adjective you can imagine:
Tone in writing is conveyed by both the choices of words and the narrator of the story.
In Charlotte's Web by E. B. White, although the book is sad, the tone is one of peace and acceptance:
But I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, and the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur-this lovely world, these precious days…"
In Hemingway's A Clean, Well-Lighted Place the tone is calm and peaceful.
It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.
In A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean loss is also addressed with a kind of acceptance. The tone here is wistful, yet peaceful and moving towards acceptance nonetheless.
This was the last fish we were ever to see Paul catch. My father and I talked about this moment several times later, and whatever our other feelings, we always felt it fitting that, when we saw him catch his last fish, we never saw the fish but only the artistry of the fisherman.
Consider the tone of The School by Donald Barthelme. Here, words like "death" and "depressing" set a negative or unhappy tone:
And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don't know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn't the best. We complained about it. So we've got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we've got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.
In the following excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," notice the many adjectives and verbs that imply insane, nervous, and guilty tones.
It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! What COULD I do? I foamed -- I raved -- I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder -- louder -- louder!
InA Tale of Two Citiesby Charles Dickens, the tone could be said to be mysterious, secretive, ominous, or evil through the use of words like "clammy," "followed," and "unwholesome."
There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.
An example of a casual tone is:
The way I look at it, someone needs to start doing something about disease. What's the big deal? People are dying. But the average person doesn't think twice about it until it affects them. Or someone they know.
A formal tone is shown in this example:
There was a delay in the start of the project, attributable to circumstances beyond the control of all relevant parties. Progress came to a standstill, and no one was prepared to undertake the assessment of the problem and determination of the solution.
There are as many examples of tone in a story as there are stars in the sky. Any adjective, adverb, or even verb you can think of can help convey the tone in a story.
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The tone and mood words listed below are also available as a Word document.
Tone and mood both deal with the emotions centered around a piece of writing. Though they seem similar and can in fact be related causally, they are in fact quite different.
Tone is the author’s attitude toward a subject. While journalistic writing theoretically has a tone of distance and objectivity, all other writing can have various tones.
If we were to read a description of a first date that included words and phrases like “dreaded” and “my buddies forced me to go on the date”, we could assume that the individual didn’t really enjoy the date.
Some tone words include:
POSITIVE TONE WORDS
(+, –, or neutral)
NEGATIVE TONE WORDS
Mood is the atmosphere of a piece of writing; it’s the emotions a selection arouses in a reader.
Some common mood descriptors are:
POSITIVE MOOD WORDS
NEGATIVE MOOD WORDS
One good way to see mood (and, to a degree, tone) in action is through genre-crossing movie trailers. In film editing classes throughout the States, a common assignment is to take an existing film (say, a comedy) and create a film preview that presents the film as a different genre (for example, a horror film). This is accomplished through editing and splicing scenes, adding new, anxiety-producing music and sound effects, and adding a new voice-over introduction.
Some of the best examples of this are below.
A writer's tone is very important, as it conveys a particular message from you as the writer and likewise affects the reader in a particular way. Consequently, it can .
This handout provides overviews and examples of how to use tone in business writing. This includes considering the audience and purpose for writing.
"Tone in writing refers to the writer's attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as one's tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges" (Ober 88).
Business writers should consider the tone of their message, whether they are writing a memo, letter, report, or any type of business document. Tone is present in all communication activities. Ultimately, the tone of a message is a reflection of the writer and it does affect how the reader will perceive the message.
How can I make sure my messages have the appropriate tone?
The writer should consider several things when preparing to write. The following questions will help you to determine the appropriate tone for your message.
You should take time to consider the purpose of your document in order to determine how you should express the message you wish to convey. Obviously, you want the message to reach your audience, and you will probably want the reader to take some action in response to your message.
When you consider the message and how you wish to express it, the tone of your message will become apparent.
Suzy is writing a job acceptance letter to an employer but is unsure of the tone she should take in the message. She has decided to accept the position. When she asks herself, "What is my intent upon writing?" she answers, "I want to accept the position, thank the company for the offer, and establish goodwill with my new co-workers." As she writes the letter she quickly assumes a tone that is appreciative for the offer and enthusiastic about beginning a new job.
Who am I writing to and what do I want them to understand?
Who is your audience? Whether it is an employer or a fellow worker, it is essential that you consider your reader before writing any document. Your message will be much more effective if you tailor the document to reach your specific audience. The message you wish to express must be written in a way that will effectively reach the reader.
The tone that you use to write the document directly affects how the reader will interpret what is said.
Bob is writing a cover letter for a position as a Sales Representative for a newspaper. He is unsure that he will be able to succeed at such a position, and uses phrases such as: "I hope that you will contact me..." "I know that my qualifications are not very impressive, but..."
The reader is likely to interpret these phrases to mean that Bob isn't really qualified for the position or that he doesn't really want the position.
Clearly, Bob is not assuming an appropriate tone. He must consider that:
If Bob were to consider these things he may rewrite his cover letter to include such phrases as: "You can reach me at 555-2233; I look forward to hearing from you." "My qualifications make me an excellent applicant for this position..."
The tone of the message has changed drastically to sound more confident and self-assured.
Fortunately, you can use the same kind of tone for most business messages. "The business writer should strive for an overall tone that is confident, courteous, and sincere; that uses emphasis and subordination appropriately; that contains nondiscriminatory language; that stresses the "you" attitude; and that is written at an appropriate level of difficulty" (Ober 88). The only major exceptions to these guidelines are when you need to write a negative business message, such as when you deny a job offer or a customer request.
Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when considering what kind of tone to use in your letters and how to present information in that tone:
You can feel confident if you have carefully prepared and are knowledgeable about the material you wish to express. The manner in which you write should assume a confident tone as well. As you prepare business documents, you want the reader to do as you ask or to accept your decision. In order to make the document effective, you must write confidently.
Consequently, a confident tone will have a persuasive effect on your audience. The reader will become more inclined to accept your position, and will notice the confidence that you have. Employers are inclined to hire individuals that appear confident and sure of their abilities.
This does not mean however; that you should appear overconfident. This can easily be interpreted as arrogant or presumptuous.
Not: You must agree that I am qualified for the position.
But: My qualifications in the areas of accounting and customer service meet your job requirements.
Be Courteous and Sincere
A writer builds goodwill for him or herself by using a tone that is polite and sincere. It is important to strive for sincerity in tone because without sincerity, politeness can sound condescending
Consider the words and phrases you use in your document and how your reader will likely receive them. If you are respectful and honest, readers will be more willing to accept your message, even if it is negative.
Not: You didn't read the instructions carefully, thus your system has shut down.
But: The system may automatically shut down if any installation errors occur.
Use Appropriate Emphasis and Subordination
You can help your readers to understand which of your ideas you consider most important by using emphasis and subordination. You can choose from a variety of strategies to emphasize an idea or to subordinate it.
To emphasize an idea, place it in a short sentence. A short and simple sentence will most effectively convey an important idea. You can provide further explanation, sufficient examples, or evidence in following sentences. To subordinate an idea, place it in a compound sentence.
Emphasis: Smoking will no longer be permitted in the building. The committee on employee health and safety reached this decision after considering evidence from researchers and physicians on the dangers of second-hand smoke.
Subordination: The committee on employee health and safety has finished considering evidence, and they have reached the decision that smoking will no longer be permitted in the building.
Ideas placed in the first paragraph of a document or message receive the most emphasis, followed by information placed in the last paragraph. You can subordinate an idea by placing it in middle paragraphs of your message because these paragraphs receive the least emphasis.
Use active voice to emphasize the person or thing performing an action and passive voice to emphasize the action that is being performed.
Active: Scientists have conducted experiments to test the hypothesis.
Passive: Experiments have been conducted to test the hypothesis.
Note: In most nonscientific writing situations, active voice is preferable to passive for the majority of your sentences. Even in scientific writing, overuse of passive voice or use of passive voice in long and complicated sentences can cause readers to lose interest or to become confused. Sentences in active voice are generally—though not always— clearer and more direct than those in passive voice. You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. Another way to recognize passive-voice sentences is that they may include a "by the..." phrase after the verb; the agent performing the action, if named, is the object of the preposition in this phrase.
You can also emphasize and subordinate information by letting readers know how you feel about the information.
The amount of space that you devote to an idea will help convey the idea's importance to the reader. Discuss ideas that you want to emphasize in more detail than you do ideas that you want to subordinate.
The language you use to describe your ideas can also suggest how important that idea is. Use phrases such as "most important," "major," or "primary" when discussing ideas you want to emphasize and phrases such as "a minor point to consider" or "least important" to discuss ideas you want to subordinate.
Emphasis: Our primary consideration must be cost.
Subordination: A minor point to consider is appearance
Repeating important ideas is good way to emphasize them as well. Be careful not to overuse this strategy; you will lose your readers' interest if they believe you are needlessly repeating information.
Our primary consideration must be cost - cost to purchase, cost to operate, and cost to maintain.
Any information that stands out from the rest of the text will be emphasized. Bolding, underlining, CAPITALIZING, indenting, and highlighting will convey emphasis to your reader. Do not use this strategy frequently or the design effect will be lost.
Use Nondiscriminatory Language
Nondiscriminatory language is language that treats all people equally. It does not use any discriminatory words, remarks, or ideas. It is very important that the business writer communicate in a way that expresses equality and respect for all individuals. Discriminatory language can come between your message and your reader. Make sure your writing is free of sexist language and free of bias based on such factors as race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, and disability.
Not: After the girls in the office receive an order, our office fills it within 24 hours.
But: When orders are received from the office, they are filled within 24 hours.
Not: Executives and their wives
But: Executives and their spouses
Not: Connie Green performed the job well for her age.
But: Connie Green performed the job well.
Not: Dear Gentlemen:
But: To Whom it May Concern:
Not: Each student must provide his own lab jacket.
But: Students must provide their own lab jackets. Or Each student must provide his or her own lab jacket.
Stress the Benefits For the Reader
Write from the reader's perspective. Instead of simply writing from the perspective of what the reader can do for you, write in a way that shows what you can do for the reader. A reader will often read a document wondering "What's in it for me?" It is your job to tailor your document accordingly.
Not: I am processing your order tomorrow.
But: Your order will be available in two weeks.
Stressing reader benefits will help you to avoid sounding self-centered and uninterested.
Write at an Appropriate Level of Difficulty
It is essential that you write at an appropriate level of difficulty in order to clearly convey your message. Consider your audience and prepare your writing so that the reader will clearly understand what it is that you are saying. In other words, prepare your style of reading to match the reading abilities of your audience. Do not use complex passages or terms that the reader will not understand. Accordingly, do not use simple terms or insufficient examples if the reader is capable of understanding your writing. A competent writer will match the needs and abilities of their reader and find the most effective way to communicate with a particular reader.
What kind of tone should I use with a negative message?
It is especially important to consider tone when you are writing a negative message. In a negative message, such as a document that rejects a job offer or denies a request, be sure to assume a tone that is gracious and sincere. Thank the reader for their input or involvement and carefully state that you cannot comply with their wishes. Follow this response with an explanation as necessary.
It is best not to draw attention to the person performing the action that will likely displease the reader. Therefore, you may want to avoid using active voice when delivering negative messages. You might also avoid stressing the reader benefits unless there are clear benefits to the negative message. It can sound insincere to stress reader benefits in a negative message.
Not: Thank you for offering me the position as General Manager at Simon's Inc. Unfortunately, I am unable to accept the position. I did not think that the position you offered me would utilize my communication and customer-service skills to the degree that I wanted. Therefore, I have accepted a position as Assistant Director at a different company
But: Thank you for offering me the position as General Manager at Simon's Inc. I appreciate your prompt and generous offer. Unfortunately, I am unable to accept the position. I have accepted a different position that will allow me to utilize my communication and customer-service skills.
In some negative messages, you may need to address faults or issues concerning an individual. When writing messages such as this, maintain a professional tone that does not attack the individual but that makes your position on the issue clear.
Not: I do not understand why you made such discriminatory remarks.
But: Discriminatory remarks are not tolerated in this organization.
For more information about tone, see: Ober, Scott. Contemporary Business Communication. 2nd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Play this game to review Reading. Triston was angry. He glared at all the squirrels who had dug up his flower garden. He would get his revenge. What is the.