Tone Definition

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 viewpoint 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 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 of tone:

  • “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 tone 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.

Tone Examples in Common 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:

Example #1

Father: “We are going on a vacation.”
Son: “That’s great!!!”

The tone of son’s response is very cheerful.

Example #2

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.

Example #3

“You will get good grades like in the previous exams”

The tone is pessimistic in this example.

Example #4

“Can someone tell me what the hell is going on here?”

This has an aggressive tone.

Examples of Tone in Literature

Tone has a significant place in literature as it manifests writers’ attitude toward different subjects.

Example #1

Holden Caulfield in J.D Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” unfolds 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.”

Holden’s tone is bitterly sarcastic as he criticizes the nature of things in real life. His character may reveal the attitude of the writer towards life as it is common for writers to use their characters as their mouthpieces.

Example #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.

Example #3

Robert Frost in the last stanza of his poem The Road 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”, this gives the above lines an unhappy tone. This tone leads us into thinking that the speaker in the poem had to make a difficult choice.

Function of Tone

Tone, in a piece of literature, decides how they readers read a literary piece and how they should feel while they are reading it. 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 creates a mood.

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

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13 comments for “Tone

  1. bart
    November 5, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    There is a mistake in example 4. should be someone instead of some.

    • ray
      January 11, 2016 at 8:41 pm

      I think that there is a mistake in Example number 3. Isn’t the tone optimistic in that example (not pessimistic)?

      • Rhondine
        February 14, 2016 at 6:24 pm

        I thought so too

        • Derek Anthony
          February 29, 2016 at 4:58 am

          I thought so too.

  2. Kyle Naicker
    October 20, 2015 at 5:20 am

    Thanks a lot, my exams are coming up and this really helped me out

    • Maryam
      November 13, 2015 at 1:31 pm

      Me too..
      Thank you for these useful literary informations…

  3. Gage
    October 29, 2015 at 9:42 am

    You should definitely take out the bad words

    • dan
      November 15, 2015 at 12:23 am

      Why? It is a quote

      • Kadence
        December 7, 2015 at 1:01 pm

        Because Bad Words Are Bad!!

        • Destani cool beans
          March 16, 2017 at 2:00 pm

          so? they’re just words and were just used as an example. and you screaming about “Because bad words are bad!!!” makes you really mature (not). of course “bad words’ are bad. But again, it’s just a quote. chill please and be mature.

    • Norah
      November 15, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      But what would literature be if we were to censor it? Would it not be an act against art? I think it was right of them to leave it in. The author used those words for a reason. You would be depriving it of meaning if you were to take them out.

      • Jacqueline
        November 30, 2015 at 9:16 pm

        It would be wiser to just put in a quote that doesn’t use profane language. While it is not right to deprive the meaning of one’s words, the choice of common sense is still an option. You needed quote something with hurtful unnecessary language to explain an attitude when a cleaner phrase would work just as well.

  4. amnda
    February 9, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    It helped me a lot on my english essay

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