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8.4: Tone

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    What is tone?

    Tone refers to the overall emotional attitude of the argument. We know intuitively what “tone of voice” means when we’re describing a conversation. If we hear a person speaking and ask ourselves the following questions, we will usually be able to describe the tone:

    • What emotions do the sound of the voice convey?
    • What expression do we see or imagine on the speaker's face as they make the argument?


    A woman holds the microphone, smiling and looking confidently to the side as if responding to someone.
    This performer conveys confidence, friendliness, and humor through her smile and posture.
    Photo by Loui G. from Pexels under the Pexels License.

    When we read, we lack the visual and auditory clues, but we still intuitively sense the writer's attitude. Tone comes across through emotional word choice and choice of examples, as we have seen in 8.2: Word Choice and Connotation and 8.3: Powerful Examples, but also in other ways, both subtle and overt. These include sentence structure, use of questions, emphasis, and direct declarations of feeling. All of these contribute to an overall pattern.

    For example, let's look at the border argument we analyzed in Chapters 2 and 3.  The third paragraph reads as follows:


    I don’t have a clear vision yet of what the right border policy would be, and I admit that completely open borders would put our security at risk. But surely there are ways to regulate the border without criminalizing people who are driven by need and good intentions.

    In 8.2: Word Choice and Connotation, we noted that words like "driven by need" and "good intentions" evoke feelings of compassion and sympathy. In describing the tone, however, we could go further to talk about the writer's purpose and attitude.  Their admissions of uncertainty in the first sentence indicate an attitude of humility and openness, so we could describe the tone as "humble."  In the second sentence, the word "surely" suggests urgency and an appeal to common sense. The contrast between the orderly, neutral phrase "regulate the border" and the more aggressive-sounding "criminalizing people" suggests that one option is decent and the other cruel.  The feelings of compassion and sympathy evoked by people's "need" and "good intentions" reinforce the sense of urgency and appeal to decency.  The combination of all of this suggests that the writer cares very much about the ethics of what they are discussing because innocent people's wellbeing is at stake.  We could describe the tone, then, as "earnest," "urgent," or "impassioned."

    How can we identify a writer's tone?

    If we want to describe the tone of an argument, we can ask ourselves these general questions:

    • How does the writer feel about the topic of the argument?
    • How does the writer feel about their own knowledge of the topic?
    • What is the writer's attitude toward the reader?

    If we are not sure how to answer or we want more insight, we can consider specific aspects of the writer's attitude, such as the degree of respect, seriousness, or certainty they feel. To describe the tone very precisely, we will need to use multiple words. We can ask ourselves about each of the aspects of tone listed in the table below and consider which of the accompanying tone words best describe the argument we are analyzing. Note that words clustered together are in most cases not synonyms. They convey shades of meaning, so they are worth looking up in an online dictionary to confirm their connotations before using them.


    A design of curved lines made up of triangles of different colors and shades.
    Like colors grouped next to similar colors, related tone words may describe similar but slightly different tones. Image by David Zydd from Pixabay under the Pixabay License.


    Words to describe a writer's tone

    Aspect of the writer's attitude Tone words Contrasting tone words

    Degree of seriousness

    conversational, flippant, glib, childish, frivolous, facetious, humorous, sarcastic, comic, satiric, amused, ironic, mocking, irreverent, casual, lighthearted, playful, cheerful, ridiculous, giddy, dreamy

    vs. serious, earnest, solemn, grave, intense, impassioned, prayerful, reverent, idealistic

    Degree of respect

    dismissive, patronizing, condescending, arrogant, haughty, chauvinistic, macho, domineering

    vs. humble, respectful, reverent, intimidated, obsequious, submissive, complimentary, flattering, simpering

    Degree of formality

    irreverent, informal, coarse, vulgar, casual, conversational, improvisational, exploratory

    vs. formal, businesslike, professional, professorial, esoteric, clinical

    Degree of self-regard

    condescending, arrogant, patronizing, proud, majestic, haughty, obnoxious

    vs. modest, humble, self-effacing, self-deprecating, down-to-earth

    Degree of goodwill toward others

    benevolent, kind, loving, affectionate, amiable, genial, agreeable, friendly, jovial, encouraging, warm

    vs. mean-spirited, mean, malicious, spiteful, cruel, hateful, hating, vengeful

    Degree of anxiety

    agitated, excited, sensational, alarmed, nervous, anxious, obsessive, worried, fearful, frightened, paranoid, frantic, frazzled, desperate, dramatic, disturbed, perturbed

    vs. calm, tranquil, serene, unworried, contemplative, meditative, reflective, thoughtful

    Degree of hesitation

    cautious, hesitating, reticent, evasive

    vs. bold, audacious, straightforward, direct, outspoken, authoritative

    Degree of certainty

    conflicted, uncertain, reluctant, contradictory, confused, baffled, ambivalent, uneasy, apologetic, regretful, pensive

    vs. confident, sure, definite, unapologetic, righteous, self-righteous, determined, persuasive, hypnotic

    Degree of interest in the topic

    wondering, curious, inquisitive, fascinated

    vs. bored, apathetic, removed, indifferent, wooden, world-weary, dull, bland, banal, blasé

    Degree of surprise

    unbelieving, incredulous, surprised, innocent, naive, disbelieving

    vs. knowing, jaded, nonplussed, weary

    Degree of distance

    intimate, impassioned, passionate, ardent, personal

    vs. formal, impersonal, objective, neutral, journalistic, informative, professional, businesslike, intellectual, detached, numb, distant, disinterested

    Degree of openness

    open, direct, forthright, candid

    vs. secretive, sneaky, cagey, sly

    Degree of approval

    elated, enthusiastic, ecstatic, celebratory, euphoric, joyous, jubilant, zestful, exuberant, blissful, happy, delighted, awestruck, appreciative, approving

    vs. disapproving, disappointed, concerned, alarmed, critical, caustic, appalled

    Degree of warmth toward the audience

    warm, cordial, friendly, flirtatious, seductive

    vs. cold, forbidding, aloof, impersonal

    Degree of connection to suffering

    concerned, compassionate, tender, consoling, comforting, sympathetic, empathetic

    vs. apathetic, indifferent, detached, aloof, callous

    Desire to communicate

    talkative, eager

    vs. laconic, taciturn, reluctant


    abrupt, hurried, hasty

    vs. patient, gradual, unhurried, lethargic, languid, pensive, scrupulous

    Attitude to the future

    despairing, tragic, defeated, discouraged, resigned, overwhelmed, disheartened, dismal, foreboding, dejected, depressed, bitter, bleak, bewildered, pessimistic, distressed, cynical, pathetic, melancholy, nostalgic, saddened, miserable, morbid, morose, mournful, sorrowful, somber, lamenting, grave, grim

    vs. hopeful, sanguine, optimistic, content, excited, enthusiastic

    Attitude to another's success

    envious, jealous

    vs. admiring, congratulatory, celebratory, enthusiastic

    Attitude to another's failing

    critical, annoyed, angry, frustrated, impatient, disappointed, resentful, hurt, aggravated, outraged, appalled, indignant, disgusted, impotent, vindictive, vengeful, furious

    vs. forgiving, indulgent, understanding, accepting, tolerant

    Attitude to one's own failing

    apologetic, remorseful, repentant, disgusted, self-critical vs. defensive, self-indulgent, complacent

    Attitude to powerful forces like spirit, country, religion

    patriotic, pious, religious, reverent, mystical, spiritual, obedient

    vs. irreverent, scoffing, impious, skeptical


    A man speaks into a mic, looking excited, passionate, righteous.
    Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash


    Phrases for analyzing tone

    If the tone is constant

    • X takes a ___________ tone in this piece.
    • X's ___________ attitude come across in phrases like "___________."
    • The tone of the argument is ___________.
    • The ___________ tone suggests that ___________.
    • X's choice of words like "___________" to describe ___________ suggests their ___________ attitude.
    • X's ___________ tone reflects their attitude to ___________.

    If the tone shifts in the course of the argument

    • Early on, X adopts a ___________ tone, but later they seem more ___________.
    • Although at first, the tone is ___________, X shifts to a more ___________ tone when ___________.
    • X takes a ___________ attitude to ___________, but when it comes to ___________, X is more ___________.
    • X's ___________ tone in the section on ___________ contrasts with their more ___________ attitude to ___________.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Write three one-sentence versions of the same argument, each with a different tone. Label each version with a tone word that describes it precisely.

    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Choose an argument you have read recently and describe its tone.  Choose a sample sentence from the argument in which the tone comes across clearly and explain which words expressed that tone.

    This page titled 8.4: Tone is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .