What is “tone”?

From LitWiki

Tone expresses emotion through word choice, denotative and connotative meanings of words, sentence structure and the usage of tone. For a paper to have good tone it must have an effective manner of expression. When trying to set the tone, a writer must consider their audience and what words to choose to express their point of view. An essay’s tone suggests the writer’s emotional involvement in the essay’s subject by projecting:

  • Anger
  • Enthusiasm
  • Disinterest
  • Outrage

Tone helps to develop and maintain your assertion throughout your essay and is important in the writing process.[1] Consider the following examples:

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly delivered a verdict that favored Microsoft’s position in the Justice Department’s anti-trust case.
Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s verdict amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist for the monopolist Microsoft.

The first example maintains an objective point of view by presenting the information in a neutral way. This may prove as a weak approach. To effectively illustrate a point of view a writer should be assertive rather than neutral. The second example is more effective writing because it uses an opinion, and the word “monopolist” which clearly illustrates the writer’s feelings toward the verdict.

Word Choice

As Diana Hacker States in her book The Bedford Handbook,word choice can also have great effects on a paper's tone.[2] Here are a few pointers a writer should keep in mind:

  • A writer should use verbs that have subjects that receive action to give a better picture to the reader.
  • A writer should not use weaker forms of verbs.
  • A writer should stand firm on their position and emphasize their points by expressing them to the fullest.
  • A good writer should elaborate on points with descriptive phases and examples.
  • A writer should avoid using the same word too many times. It can make a paper seem monotonous and lose the reader’s attention.
  • A good writer always keeps a dictionary and thesaurus.

Denotative and Connotative Meanings

Words have both denotative and connotative meanings. The denotative meaning is a neutral dictionary definition that has a strict meaning. A connotative meaning contains the emotional value or illustrations that often comes to mind when thinking of a word. For example:

  • Denotative

1. Water is a combination of two hydrogen's and one oxygen.

  • Connotative

2. The thought of water brings to mind coolness and refreshment.

In the first sentence, there was little imagination and the definition of "water" was simply stated. Sometimes the denotative meaning can give the writer merit and a firm base for their opinion. With the second sentence, there is a visual painted of water that makes the reader feel what the writer is trying to express.

Sentence Structure

Andrea Lunsford states in her book The Everyday Writer that in order for a paper to maintain tone, it must not deviate from tense or from mood. In order for a writer to effectively illustrate their point, they need to have a firm position and not waiver.[3] Consistency is important to maintain a paper's tone and limits shifts in a paper's voice. Consistency will illustrate a writer's point effectively to his or her readers. Here are a few things that will help a writer maintain Consistency:

  • Numbering
  • Grammatical person
  • Tense

Hacker claims that in order for a paper to have adequate tone, it must not contain too many choppy sentences or too many complex sentences. There should be a happy medium so that the writer can get their point across while still illustrating their point effectively. A paper must have:

  • A consistent flow of ideas that illustrate the writer's point.
  • Simplify without becoming too simple or too hard to read.
  • Use different ways to write and create sentences; catchy phrases are nice but stay clear of slang.

Usage of Tone

The term tone was first used as a means to describe music and it is now widely used in the discussion of literature. The tone of a piece of literature, or an official document, sets the stage for how that piece of work should be read by the reader. Authors create the tone of a work through the use of word choice, syntax,imagery,details, and figurative language. While the author can set the tone of an official document or a piece of literature it should still be made clear that the author's views and opinions are not those of the reader. In many pieces of literature the author may use a variety of different tones to tell a story. An official document is different from a piece of literature because there is only one tone throughout and that is a very formal tone. Whether its an informal or formal tone, every piece of writing makes usage of tone.

Tone is important when writing a paper. When used correctly, tone will illustrate a writer’s attitude about the subject to the reader effectively.

External Links


  1. Macon State OWL Writers Laboratory. Feb 28.2005 [1]
  2. Hacker, Diana. A Writer's Reference. New York, Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2003, p. 128 [2]
  3. Lunsford, Andrea A. The Everyday Writer. New York, Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2005, p. 195 [3]