Definition of Tone

Tone, in written composition, is an attitude of a writer toward a subject or an audience. Tone is generally conveyed through the choice of words or the view point of a writer on a particular subject.

Every written piece comprises a central theme or subject matter. The manner in which a writer approaches this theme and subject is called the tone. The tone can be formal, informal, serious, comic, sarcastic, sad, and cheerful or it may be any other existing attitudes. Consider the following examples:

  • “I want to ask the authorities what is the big deal? Why do not they control the epidemic? It is eating up lives like a monster.”
  • “I want to draw the attention of the concerned authorities toward damage caused by an epidemic. If steps were not taken to curb it, it will further injure our community”

The theme of both examples is the same. The only way we can differentiate between them is their separate tone. The tone in the first example is casual or informal while, it is more formal in the second.

Example of Tone in Everyday Speech

We adopt variety of tones in our day to day speech. This intonation of our speech determines what message we desire to convey. Read a few examples below:

Father: “We are going on a vacation.”
Son: “That’s great!!!” – the tone of son’s response is very cheerful.

Father: “We can’t go on vacation this summer.”
Son: “Ok. Great! That’s what I expected.” – the son’s tone is sarcastic in the given response.

“You will get good grades like in the previous exams” – the tone is pessimistic in this example.

“Can some tell me what the hell is going on here?”-an example of aggressive tone.

Examples of Tone in Literature

Tone has a significant place in literature as it manifests writers’ attitude toward different subjects. Below are a few examples:

1. The tone of “Holden Caulfield” in J.D Salinger “Catching the Rye” unfold his personality through the tone he adopts throughout the novel. Let us have a look at some of his remarks:

  • “All morons hate it when you call them a moron.”
  • “If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she’s late? Nobody.”
  • “Goddamn money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.”
  • “Catholics are always trying to find out if you’re Catholic.”

The tone of Holden is bitterly sarcastic as he criticizes nature of things in real life. The character of Holden determines the attitude of writer towards life as he [Holden] is a mouthpiece of his writer

2. Observe the tone of a short story “The School” by Donald Barthelme:

“And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. Something wrong with the soil possibly or maybe the stuff we got from the nursery wasn’t the best. We complained about it. So we’ve got thirty kids there, each kid had his or her own little tree to plant and we’ve got these thirty dead trees. All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.”

The use of adjectives “dead” and “depressing” sets a gloomy tone in the passage. As trees signify life here, their unexpected “death” from an unknown cause gives the above passage an  unhappy and pessimistic tone.

3. Robert Frost in the last stanza of his poem “The Roads Not taken” gives us an insight into the effect of tone:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Frost tells us about his past with a “sigh” the gives the above lines an unhappy tone. This tone convinces us into thinking that Frost is telling us sullenly of a choice in the past about which he was not happy or contented in the present.

Function of Tone

Tone in a piece of literature decides how it should be read by the readers. It stimulates the readers to read a piece of literature as a serious, comical, spectacular or distressing. In addition, tone lends shape and life to a piece of literature because it reveals the writer’s attitude and creates a mood.

Moreover,tone bestows voice to characters and it throws light on the personalities and dispositions of characters that are better understood by the readers.

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