What is Author's Tone?

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On almost any reading comprehension portion of any standardized test out there, you're going to get a question that asks you to figure out the author's tone in the passage. Heck. You'll see questions like this on many English teacher's exams, too. Besides the tests, it's helpful to know what the author's tone is in an article in the newspaper, on a blog, in an email, and even on a Facebook status for your own general knowledge.

A message can be really misinterpreted and things can go really, really awry if you don't understand the basics behind tone. So, here are some quick, easy details about author's tone to help.

Author's Tone Defined

Author's tone is simply an author's attitude toward a particular written subject. It's very different from the author's purpose! The tone of the article, essay, story, poem, novel, screenplay, or any other written work can be described in many ways. The author's tone can be witty, dreary, warm, playful, outraged, neutral, polished, wistful, reserved, and on and on. Basically, if there's an attitude out there, an author can write with it.

Author's Tone Created

An author uses different techniques to create the tone he or she wants to convey, but the most important is word choice. It's huge when it comes to setting a tone. If an author wanted his or her writing to have a scholarly, serious tone, he or she would stay away from onomatopoeia, figurative language, and bright, flashy words.

He or she would probably choose tougher vocabulary and longer, more complex sentences.  If, however, he or she wanted to be witty and light, then the author would use very specific sensory language, (sounds, smells and tastes, perhaps), colorful descriptions and shorter, even grammatically incorrect sentences and dialogue.

Author's Tone Examples

Take a look at the word choice in the following examples to see how different tones can be created using the same scenario.  

Tone #1

The suitcase was packed. His guitar was already on his shoulder. Time to go. He took one last look around his room, pushing down the lump forming in his throat. His mother waited in the hallway, eyes red. "You'll be great, baby," she whispered, pulling him to her for one last hug. He couldn't answer, but warmth spread through his chest at her words. He walked out into the crisp morning, tossed his suitcase in the back, and left his childhood home, the future shining before him as brightly as the September sun.

Tone #2

The suitcase was busting at the seams. His ol' beat-up guitar hung around his shoulder, knocking him in the head as he tried to get out the gol-dang door. He looked around his room, probably for the last time, and coughed so he didn't start blubbering like a baby. His mom stood there in the hallway, looking like she'd been crying for the last fifteen hours. "You'll be great, baby," she cooed and pulled him into a hug so tight he felt his insides squishing around. He didn't answer and not because he was upset or anything.

More because she'd squeezed the words out of his throat. He clomped out the house, threw his junk in the car, and smiled as he revved the engine. He could hear his mom wailing inside and chuckled to himself as he backed out the drive toward the unknown. What waited around the bend? He wasn't sure, but he was absolutely, one hundred per cent positive it was gonna be good. Really good.

Even though both paragraphs talk about a young man leaving his mother's house, the tone of the passages are very different. The first is wistful – more nostalgic - whereas the second is light-hearted.

Author's Tone on Reading Tests

Reading comprehension tests like ACT Reading or Evidence-Based Reading on the SAT, will often ask you to determine the author's tone of different passages, although they may not come right out and ask you in that way.

Some will, but many do not! Here are some questions you could see on the reading comprehension portion of an exam that relate to author's tone:

  1. Which of the following choices provides the most vivid description while maintaining the author's tone of the article?
  2. What does the author want to convey through the use of the word "bitter" and "morbid"?
  3. The author's attitude toward mom and pop cafés could best be described as:
  4. Based on the information in lines 46 – 49, the author's feelings about environmentalists in the Sahara could best be described as:
  5. Which emotion is the author most likely trying to rouse from the reader?
  6. The author of the article would most likely describe the American Revolution as:
  7. What emotion does the author want to convey through the use of the statement, "Never again!"
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Roell, Kelly. "What is Author's Tone?" ThoughtCo, Dec. 5, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-authors-tone-3211744. Roell, Kelly. (2016, December 5). What is Author's Tone? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-authors-tone-3211744 Roell, Kelly. "What is Author's Tone?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-authors-tone-3211744 (accessed May 26, 2018).