What Is Tone In Writing?

Learn More With This Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In composition, tone is the expression of a writer's attitude toward subject, audience, and self.

Tone is primarily conveyed in writing through diction, point of view, syntax, and level of formality.

Etymology: From the Latin, "string, a stretching"

"In Writing: A Manual for the Digital Age," David Blakesley and Jeffrey L. Hoogeveen make a simple distinction between style and tone: "Style refers to the overall flavor and texture created by the writer's word choices and sentence structures. Tone is an attitude toward the events of the story—humorous, ironic, cynical, and so on." In practice, there's a close connection between style and tone.

Tone and Persona

In Thomas S. Kane's "The New Oxford Guide to Writing," "If persona is the complex personality implicit in the writing, tone is a web of feelings stretched throughout an essay, feelings from which our sense of the persona emerges. Tone has three main strands: the writer's attitude toward subject, reader, and self.

"Each of these determinants of tone is important, and each has many variations. Writers may be angry about a subject or amused by it or discuss it dispassionately. They may treat readers as intellectual inferiors to be lectured (usually a poor tactic) or as friends with whom they are talking. Themselves they may regard very seriously or with an ironic or an amused detachment (to suggest only three of numerous possibilities). Given all these variables, the possibilities of tone are almost endless.

"Tone, like persona, is unavoidable. You imply it in the words you select and in how you arrange them."

Tone and Diction

According to W. Ross Winterowd In his book, "The Contemporary Writer," "The main factor in tone is diction, the words that the writer chooses. For one kind of writing, an author may choose one type of vocabulary, perhaps slang, and for another, the same writer may choose an entirely different set of words....
"Even such small matters as contractions make a difference in tone, the contracted verbs being less formal:

It is strange that the professor had not assigned any papers for three weeks.
It's strange that the professor hadn't assigned any papers for three weeks."

Tone in Business Writing

Philip C. Kolin reminds us of how important it is to get the tone just right in business correspondence in "Successful Writing at Work." He says, "Tone in writing...can range from formal and impersonal (a scientific report) to informal and personal (an email to a friend or a how-to article for consumers). Your tone can be unprofessionally sarcastic or diplomatically agreeable.

"Tone, like style, is indicated in part by the words you choose....

"The tone of your writing is especially important in occupational writing because it reflects the image you project to your readers and thus determines how they will respond to you, your work, and your company. Depending on your tone, you can appear sincere and intelligent or angry and uninformed.... The wrong tone in a letter or a proposal might cost you a customer."

Sentence Sounds

The following examples are from Dona Hickey's book, "Developing a Written Voice" where she quotes Lawrence Roger Thompson who was quoting Robert Frost. "Robert Frost believed sentence tones (which he called 'sound of sense') are 'already there—living in the cave of the mouth.' He considered them 'real cave things: they were before words were' (Thompson 191). To write a 'vital sentence,' he believed, 'we must write with the ear on the speaking voice' (Thompson 159). 'The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader. Eye readers miss the best part. The sentence sound often says more than the words' (Thompson 113). According to Frost:

Only when we are making sentences so shaped [by spoken sentence tones] are we truly writing. A sentence must convey a meaning by tone of voice and it must be the particular meaning the writer intended. The reader must have no choice in the matter. The tone of voice, and its meaning must be in black and white on the page (Thompson 204).

"In writing, we can't indicate body language, but we can control how sentences are heard. And it is through our arrangement of words into sentences, one after another, that we can approximate some of the intonation in speech that tells our readers not only information about the world but also how we feel about it, who we are in relationship to it, and who we think our readers are in relationship to us and the message we want to deliver."

Novelist Samuel Butler once said, "We are not won by arguments that we can analyze but by the tone and temper, by the manner which is the man himself."

Sources

Blakesley, David and Jeffrey L. Hoogeveen. Writing: A Manual for the Digital Age. Cengage, 2011.

Hickey, Dona. Developing a Written Voice. Mayfield, 1992.

Kane, Thomas S. The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Kolin, Philip C. Successful Writing at Work, Concise Edition. 4th ed., Cengage, 2015.

Winterowd, W. Ross. The Contemporary Writer: A Practical Rhetoric. 2nd ed., Harcourt, 1981.