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2 Tutorials that teach Tone
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Author: Martina Shabram

This lesson will prepare students to be able to: Identify the tone of a piece of writing. 

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Video Transcription

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Hello, students. My name is Dr. Martina Shabram. And I will be your instructor for today's lesson. I'm genuinely excited to teach you these concepts. So let's get started.

In this lesson, we get to focus on the tone of our writing. We'll talk about how a text's purpose and audience influences its tone, learn about how to master tone in writing, and practice identifying and assessing tone in paragraphs.

Let's start by thinking about the purpose and the audience of a text, which are two factors that have huge effects on the way we write. As you know by now, the purpose of a text is what it's meant to do. Is it meant to convince our readers to take our side in a debate, or inform them about something interesting.

And of course, those readers are our audience. So together, the purpose and the audience influence everything about our text-- what words we choose, what level of formality we use, and how our sentences are crafted. And it's those factors that influence what our tone is.

So we've got to talk about tone, which is a writer's attitude toward the subject as conveyed through a piece of writing. So the tone of a text is how authors express their opinion toward and attitude about the topic. Tone helps create the feel of the text-- everything working together to speak in the author's voice.

Maybe the author's voice is negative or positive or neutral. It could be sarcastic or angry, melancholy or exuberant, nostalgic or hopeful. And just as the inflection in the tone of my voice can move from naive to jaded to sad, so too can the tone of a piece of writing.

We even describe the tone of writing in the same way that we describe the tone of voice. So you can even try to hear writing as if it were being read aloud, if you want to assess its tone. So listening to the author's voice is one great way to assess and identify the tone of a piece.

You might even read a text aloud to really hear how it sounds and what those sounds make you feel. But what is doing the work to make you feel? Well, there are a few ways in which tone can be established.

First, what words the author chooses. Does the author use formal or informal language? What level is the vocabulary-- highly technical and precise or more general and casual?

Think also about the connotations and denotations of these words. Has this author chosen words with heightened emotional connotations? Or has the author tried to maintain a dryer tone and use words strictly in their denotative sense.

Look also to the level of formality the author uses. Does this text affect a formal tone or a casual one? Does it rely on the personal, use slang, and take a relaxed approach to grammar? Well, that's casual. Or, does it remain neutral in tone, use more complex vocabulary and eschew the personal entirely. Then it's formal.

Finally, how complex are the sentences? Are they short and choppy, long and complex, or a mixture? All of these factors work together to create an overall tone. Writing dominated by short sentences and highly emotional words-- that's more casual. Formal writing, on the other hand, tends to feature longer and more complex sentences and vocabulary that includes technical words.

So think about how these three factors work in concert with one another, like an orchestra turning out a complex melody. So how do we figure out what that melody is, what tone a piece is affecting? Well, we might start by reading aloud to ourselves, as I've already mentioned.

But then, we can ask if what we hear is positive, negative, or neutral. Once we've established its emotional category, then we can start narrowing down to what kind of, say, positive or neutral emotional tone it has created.

Let's practice. Here is a short paragraph. Pause to read through and try to hear the tone. Go ahead and read it aloud to yourself. Press play when you're ready to discuss.

So what do you think? Now, I don't know about you, but this author sounds angry and disgusted to me. How do we know where the tone comes from in the language? Well, let's look at the first sentence-- utter lack of accountability. What does that mean?

Well, it's saying that politicians are not being held responsible for their behavior. That's a pretty divisible argument. But the tone of the phrase itself indicates the author's feelings. I mean, this author could have said something more neutral, and the meaning would've been the same. But with intense words, well, we can tell that this is more angry.

What are some other words that seem charged with intensity, anger, or even disgust-- distressing, plummeted, nadir, whims, again and again parade through the halls. Can we say any of those in a happy tone? Let's try. Again and again parade through the halls. In this context, it's hard to make it sound like we're talking about a parade of kittens.

So all of these words indicate that this is written in an angry or even disgusted tone. And why might it be using this tone? What do you think this author wants us, the readers, to do? Should we laugh and move along with our day? No. This author wants the readers to get angry, to be spurred to action. So all of that language and that tone is meant to drive readers to action by making them angry and making them want to change the situation.

OK, let's do another. Go ahead and pause. And press play when you're ready. OK, this has a very different tone, doesn't it. It's light hearted, it's funny in places. And it's written in an entirely narrative manner.

What do you think the purpose of this piece is? I'd say that, given the style, the author is trying to tell an entertaining story. Do you see the ways that the tone reflects this? Look at how the story is framed.

You'll never guess the hilarious thing that happened on Halloween. Well, we know, then, that the purpose is hilarity. I also noticed spots like, Eeyore was no dog-- he was a pig! That indicates a more casual, lighthearted tone. The exclamation point and the dash that indicates a kind of interruption or realization-- all of that makes this sound more conversational. And what about, I even got to pet the porker? That kind of casual slangy description definitely makes the tone light and funny.

Last time, you know the drill. All right, what do you notice here? Well, to start with, this a pretty academic piece, right. We see an argument about teaching popular texts in college courses. So we know that this is meant to convince the reader of something. So how does it differ from our first example, which was also trying to persuade the reader of something?

Unlike the first example, this piece isn't appealing to our emotions by using inflammatory words and intensely evocative description, is it. No, this uses a more neutral tone and walks through the implications of its claims with a more gentle, unemotional affect. Think about how different this would be if, instead of making the argument this way, we made the same point this way.

Wow, that latter sentence is intense and emotional, again. We have phrases like passionate and connected and drive them further away. That kind of argumentation would work well on a debate stage or maybe on a talk radio show. But the original tone-- that would work better in an academic setting where we know that the tone is usually meant to eschew bias and be more neutral.

So what did we learn today? Well, this lesson helped us practice hearing our writing a little more clearly so that we can understand and assess its tone. We discussed the factors that helped create the tone of a piece. And then we practiced identifying the tone in some sample paragraphs.

Well, students, I hope you had as much fun as I did. Thank you.

Notes on "Tone"


(00:00 – 00:09) Introduction

(00:10 – 00:24) What are we going to learn today?

(00:25 – 00:56) Purpose and Audience

(00:57 – 01:46) Tone

(01:47 – 03:40) Assessing Tone

(03:41 – 05:14) Sample #1

(05:15 – 06:10) Sample #2

(06:11 – 07:19) Sample #3

(07:20 – 07:41) Recap and Goodbye

Terms to Know

A writer's attitude toward the subject as conveyed through a piece of writing.