Examining Tone

AP L AN G U AG E , S E M E S T E R 1
• Tone is the expression of the author’s or speaker’s
attitude toward the subject or toward the
• Tone is the means by which the author’s attitude is
communicated to his or her audience.
• Diction, imagery, detail, figurative language, and
syntax are the techniques through which an
author’s tone is conveyed.
• On the AP English Language and Composition
exam, the words “tone” and “attitude” are used
almost synonymously.
• So, you can consider tone and attitude as the same
thing – the author’s or speaker’s feelings about the
subject and/or audience.
• On AP exams, you may be asked to identify an
author’s tone and to discuss how he or she conveys
that tone in a particular piece of writing.
• This is a two-part task: identify and analyze.
• The obvious difference between written and oral tone is
that the writer must use words alone to convey his or her
• The visual and auditory clues a listener receives are not
available to the reader.
• Author’s tone is described by adjectives.
• For example, you might say, “The author of this book
sounds… cynical , depressed , sympathetic , cheerful ,
outraged , positive , angry , sarcastic , prayerful , ironic ,
solemn , vindictive , intense , or excited . ”
• Remember that tone is not an action; it is an attitude.
• Tone is not explained or expressed directly.
• Readers must “read between the lines” to feel the
author’s attitude and identify the tone.
• Keep in mind that tone is an element of all verbal
communication, whether oral or written.
• Even a statement such as “Resident Parking” has a
tone: straightforward, matter-of-fact, informative.
• Note that even slight changes can affect the tone
• “Resident Parking Only” sounds a bit sterner, and a
non-resident may sense that he or she is being not
only informed, but warned.
• If the word “Only” is underlined, or an exclamation
mark is added, the tone becomes more emphatic
• Show how do you go about identifying a writer’s
• The first step is to recognize the choices the author
has made, particularly word choice (diction) and
phrasing (syntax).
• Vivid imagery and figurative language can also
help convey the writer’s attitude.
• One the next slide we are going to examine a
selection from an editorial in Collier’s magazine in
the early 1950s.
• Senator Joseph McCarthy had claimed that various
publications that criticized him were involved in
• Advertisers began to pull their ads from these
Senator McCarthy has set himself up as the final authority on
loyalty and Americanism. He insists that his accusations are not to be
doubted, and his judgment is not to be questioned. Yet, a few weeks
after he wrote his letter to Time’s advertisers, he testified in Syracuse,
New York that the Washington Post and the New York (Communist)
Daily Worker “parallel each other quite closely in editorials.” And
when he was asked whether he would consider the Christian
Science Monitor a “leftwing smear paper,” he replied, “I can’t
answer yes or no.”
Those are the statements of a man who is either woefully
unperceptive or wholly irresponsible. And when such a man asks that
his wild-swinging attacks be accepted without question, he is, to
borrow his own words, not only ridiculous but dangerous.
We are not concerned that, on the basis of this editorial, the
senator may now add us to his company of “left-wing smearers,” or
that he may also warn our advertisers of the danger of supporting
another publication which pollutes the waterholes of information.
What does concern us is the real danger of Communist infiltration in
government, and the fact that this danger is too serious to be
obscured and clouded by Senator McCarthy’s eccentricities,
exaggerations and absurdities.
• In the previous excerpt, the words or phrases that evoke
a sense of the editorial’s tone have been underlined.
• These words reveal the editorial’s disdain for McCarthy.
• The writer suggests McCarthy’s pompousness with the
phrases “he has set himself up as the final authority” and
“insists…not to be doubted.”
• The writer claims that McCarthy must be “woefully
unperceptive” or “wholly irresponsible.”
• The diction builds a picture of a dangerous man: “wildswinging attacks”, eccentricities, exaggerations and
• The writer cleverly uses Senator McCarthy’s own words
(“to borrow his own words”) and calls the senator “not
only ridiculous but dangerous.”
• When you are asked to identify tone, try to use
labels that correspond to the intensity of the tone
• Similarly, when you are asked to write original
sentences or paragraphs that convey a certain
tone, choose words and phrases that correspond in
intensity to the tone you are trying to express.
• For example, if you want to communicate an
appreciative tone, you might say, “The weather was
pleasant, with a balmy breeze that kept us
• An awe-struck tone, however, would require stronger
words and maybe a shift in diction: “Could it be? Was
such a magnificent sunset even possible in Paradise,
much less in our little town?”
• The difference in intensity of the two examples is evident
in their diction and syntax.
• The words “pleasant,” “balmy,” & “comfortable” are
straightforward statements of fact, versus the words
“magnificent,” “possible,” “Paradise,” and the rhetorical
questions that suggest a sense of disbelief.
• After examining the diction in the passage on McCarthy,
we might label the tone as critical or negative, but this is
not strong enough.
• The writer is clearly appalled by Senator McCarthy’s
attacks, so “upset” might be more accurate.
• The words are so vehement, though, that we might want
to refer to the tone as “indignant” or “caustic,” burning
like acid.
• This is where developing a good vocabulary to describe
tone becomes useful.
• We can accurately identify the editorial’s tone as
critical, negative, upset, indignant, or caustic, but some
labels are more precise than others.
• In the selections you are asked to analyze for tone
on the AP exams, you can usually identify two, or
even more, tones.
• Two tones within the same selection may be
complementary tones, reinforcing each other, or
contrasting tones, differing significantly from each
• These shifts are usually subtle, but shifts in the
connotations of words or in the types of images or
figures of speech used can indicate a shift in tone.
• In the excerpt on McCarthy, the tone shifts in the final
• The writer makes clear that the reason the magazine is
concerned about McCarthy’s “eccentricities,
exaggerations, and absurdities” is that they obscure “the
real danger of Communist infiltration in government.”
• Suddenly, the writer expresses agreement with the
senator that there is a Communist threat in America but
says that McCarthy’s “absurdities” might prevent
stopping the “real” Communists.
• So in addition to “critical,” “negative,” “upset,”
“indignant,” and “caustic,” we could also describe the
tone as “cautionary,” “rational,” even “patriotic.”