Term: Tone

Tone (also sometimes called voice) is the feeling or attitude that comes through in an author's words. And yes it's possible for the same author to assume different tones. The remarkable Calvin Trillin, for instance, is a writer who speaks in several different voices. Trillin's writing can be funny and sarcastic: "Marriage is part of a sort of 50's revival package that's back in vogue along with neckties and naked ambition." (Click here to find similar quotations from Trillin.)

However, like any really good writer, Trillin adjusts his tone to the subject and the effect he wants to have on his audience. Writing about American society and politics, he's inclined to the kind of witty flippancy you hear in the above quote. But in describing the loss of his beloved wife Alice in his book About Alice, his tone changes to a mix of the celebratory and the grief-stricken:

In 1988, an old friend phoned us to say that his grown daughter, a young woman we'd known since she was a child, had been raped by an intruder. This was a dozen years after Alice had been operated on for lung cancer, and among the things that she wrote to our friend's daughter was that having lung cancer and being raped were comparable only in that both were what she called "realizations of our worst nightmares." She said that there was some relief at surviving what you might have thought was not survivable. "No one would ever choose to have cancer or to be raped," she wrote. "But you don't get to choose, and it is possible at least to understand what Ernest Becker meant when he said something like 'To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything,'... " (Click here for an excerpt from Trillin's book About Alice.)

As a reader, you need to look at tone in two different ways. On the one hand, study and mimic the various devices authors use to make their words evoke a certain feeling or attitude. (Click here for an exercise that identifies some of these devices.) Aware of what professional writers do to create a certain tone, you can use some of the same devices to develop your own voice.

But in addition, think about how tone affects your response as a reader. Are you, for example, letting yourself be persuaded by an overbearing tone that insists you feel the same way the writer does, when, in fact, you feel nothing of a sort? For example: "As Americans, we need to unite in the struggle against outsiders who arrive in this country illegally and yet receive all the privileges of citizens."

Or are you ignoring a writer's unpleasant message because she makes her point in an ironic, joking manner? For example: "Is the public supposed to believe that this fully-grown woman was afraid to leave her house because her husband forbade it? That might have made sense in the nineteenth century, but as the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercials used to say, 'You've come a long way baby,' and this tale of domestic abuse is about as believable as the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

Or even more typically, are you letting the author's seemingly objective tone bamboozle you into thinking he is reporting a fact rather than opinion? For example: "Challenges to fingerprint evidence have mounted in the past fifteen years, ever since the 1993 Supreme Court decision in Daubert v. Merrill Dow, which ruled that the reliability of any evidence presented by an expert must be evaluated and accepted by the judge. As a result of that decision, fingerprint evidence, despite its continued appearance in the courtroom, no longer has any credibility." In this case, the author begins on a factual note and maintains an objective tone, so it's easy to miss that he drifts off later into the realm of pure opinion. If fingerprint evidence is still being presented in the courtroom, some people still think it is credible evidence and the author is, by the end of the passage, expressing an opinion, not a fact, no matter how cool and confident the tone.

Anytime you read, pay attention to the tone writers use to explain or argue their point. This is especially important when you know beforehand, say with a newspaper editorial, that the writer's purpose is persuasive. Evaluating the role of tone in writing can help you avoid being unconsciously persuaded by the author's voice, rather than by the explanation or argument presented.

Last update of this page: Feb. 12, 2016