The Author’s Tone
Sometimes how people say something (that is, the tone they use when saying it), tells you more about the message than what they actually said.
Keep in mind that writers are people. They have their own points of view and feelings. These, in turn, color how they express their ideas.
Sometimes writers make conscious decisions about the words they choose because they want to convey a particular tone in their writing. Other times, they are not even aware about having written something in a negative or positive tone.
Examine the following scenario and how three people described it in an email.
Same scenario, different tones
Professor Ecks was in a car accident. He was not harmed, but he had to cancel several classes. His students were concerned about Professor Ecks, but they were also concerned about missing instruction.
An Email Using a Neutral Tone
Hi, John. I heard that Professor Ecks was in a car accident. He wasn't hurt, but he had to cancel a few classes. I feel sorry for him. I am also concerned about missing instruction.
An Email Using a Complaining Tone
Hi, John. Oh great! Professor Ecks got into some car accident and had to cancel some classes. I’m glad he wasn’t hurt but, well, how about all the instruction I’m missing? That’s just what I needed to deal with now.
An Email Using a Worrisome Tone
Hi, John. I was so sad to hear Professor Ecks was in a car accident recently. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt. He had to cancel classes, so it may be more serious than they are saying. I’m not sure how missing instruction will impact my grades. It’s a bad situation for everyone.
- Although the situation each student describes is exactly the same, each student uses a different tone to describe it: neutral, complaining, and worrisome.
- The student writing the email with a neutral tone expresses concern about missing instruction; however, the overall tone is still neutral. The student simply states the facts and how he feels.
- The student writing with a complaining tone feels bad about Professor Ecks but immediately goes back to complaining about the impact of the situation; therefore, the overall tone is complaining. The student also uses sarcasm; therefore, “oh great!” and “that’s just what I needed” must be interpreted as meaning the opposite—that is, the student feels like the victim and complains about it.
How Many Tones?
There are as many tones in writing as there are human emotions. You can even detect multiple tones, for example, if the text is angry and bitter or funny and intriguing.
Click here for a short list of adjectives you can use to describe the tone of a passage.
The Writer’s Attitudes
In the lesson about the writer’s point of view, you saw how the people respond to the same situation differently when they see it from different angles. Notice that in the sample student emails above, the students share the same viewpoint—they are all students missing instruction because of their professor’s accident. Nonetheless, they described the scenario using different tones.
Your ideas are also shaped by your attitudes. If you have a positive attitude, you are likely to have a positive tone as well (e.g., forgiving, pleasant, hopeful, etcetera). Likewise, a negative attitude is likely to produce a negative tone (e.g., complaining, skeptical, angry, and so on).
Interpreting the Writer’s Tone and Attitudes while Reading
As you can see, your viewpoint may color your perception of a topic and affect what you say and your tone (how you say it). In addition, your attitudes and tone are not exactly the same phenomenon, but they are usually closely related. Keep this in mind when you are reading and you detect a positive, neutral, or negative tone or attitude. Analyzing them can tell a lot about the writer and how the writer chose to write the text.
Watch a video on YouTube to learn about the author’s tone. Take good study notes.
Note. The video supports the content on this page. You can study the page and watch the video in any order.
Up Next: The Writer’s Bias
Go to the next lesson to learn how to detect and interpret the author’s bias.
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