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Humanities Libertexts

8.4: Tone

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  • Tone refers to the overall emotional attitude of the argument. If the writer can get us to share their feelings about a topic, they are more likely to convince us of their ideas. If their emotional attitude to us as readers is inviting, we are more likely to trust them.

    An argument’s tone affects the relationship with the reader. Generally, if the reader has a similar attitude, they will feel more trust or affinity for the argument. If their attitude toward the subject of the argument is radically different, they may be so alienated that they reject the argument out of hand.

    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?

    When we read, we lack the visual and auditory clues, but the words alone still give us an intuitive sense. Emotions and attitudes come across through word choice and choice of examples, as we have seen, but also in many other ways, both subtle and overt. These include sentence structure, use of questions, emphasis, and direct declarations of feeling.

    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?
    • What is the writer's attitude toward the reader?
    • What is the writer's attitude to themself?

    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.

    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, overpowered, intimidated, obsequious, submissive, complimentary, fulsome, 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

    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