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Tone and Personal Style

Tone and Personal Style

Author: Gavin McCall

This essay discusses tone, voice, and personal style.

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Source: Machiavelli, Nicolo. “The Prince.” trans. W. K. Marriot. Gutenberg eBook #1232, Nov. 5, 2012. Twain, Mark. “How to Tell a Story and Others.” Gutenberg eBook # 3250, Oct. 31, 2012.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to learn about tone and personal style, as well as how they're impacted by context.

Many writers and compositionists throw around the word tone, though in fact, it's a hard term to define. For our purposes, think of tone as the writer's attitude towards the subject, as it's conveyed through a piece of writing. Most of the time, when we speak of tone, we mean the tone of a piece of writing, since one writer can make use of many different tones to suite different purposes.

Some of the most common tones a text can take are earnest, hostile, pensive, detached, and more. Essentially, these are just descriptors. And as readers vary, so too will the perceived tones of a text, as in one reader might consider a text tone to be overly hostile, while another, due to different perspectives, will not.

For example, consider this paragraph taken from a movie review. What would you say was the tone of this piece judging from this single paragraph? Pause the video and take a moment to read it. And as you do, keep an eye out for any signals of the writer's mood or attitude.

So what did you think? It's kind of personal, a little abrupt. And while not exactly hostile, it does give us the sense that it might become that way momentarily, doesn't it? It's certainly not trying to maintain an objective stance. And woe be to the reader that enjoyed the movie, right?

Now, look at this paragraph. The tone should stand out as different for the last. Again, pause the video and take a moment to read it.

As you should have been able to tell, this came from a more academic text. And like most academic writing, it's using a much more sedate tone, more formal, but also more objective, more pensive or thoughtful too, wouldn't you say?

One common signal for this kind of tone is that we don't have any personal references-- no I, no you. And you wouldn't imagine the writer of this text ending a paragraph with, I kind of just went with it, like the last excerpt had.

And now, consider this paragraph taken from another less academic text. Take whatever time you need to read it.

It shouldn't be a stretch to say that this text has a much more pessimist tone than either of the previous ones. Even though it shares a similar level of formality with the first, the tone here is different, darker, angrier, quicker to jump to conclusions and make judgments. And even though I'm not going to say whether I agree with this or not, I will say that, if this text was a person, it's unlikely that the two of us would get along.

And the thing is, these are just three examples of different tones that writers can take. They are by no means the limit to the range you'll likely see when reading or even writing.

So even though there's a huge range of tones that writers can adopt during a particular writing project, in general, most experienced writers will stick to one or two stances. This, combined with the other habitual techniques and preferences, contributes to what we'll call the writer's personal style. This is the unique style for a particular writer. It's that combination of traits that makes you recognize your favorite writer's work, even if all you see is a little passage.

Some writers are capable of varying their personal styles, particularly writers that work with different genres, say fiction and essays. Still though, once writers develop over years of practice a style that they like, they tend to stick with it. Though, of course their style will continue to change and mature as they do.

As an example of personal style, let's read this paragraph taken from an essay by Mark Twain. "I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim that I know how a story ought to be told, for I have been almost daily in the company of the most expert storytellers for many years." There are several kinds of stories but only one difficult kind-- the humorous."

"I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story depends for its effects upon the manner of the telling, the comic story and the witty story upon the matter. The humorous story may be spun out to great length and may wander around as much as it pleases and arrive nowhere in particular. But the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along. The others burst."

I would say that this passage is pretty indicative of Mark Twain's style. He's known for his wit and for making the kind of self-deprecating gestures he starts this paragraph with. He's also famous for using metaphors, like the humorous story bubbling gently along. There's a kind of intellectualism that he uses here, but by the conversational, everyday guy tone that I associate with Twain's writing, nonfiction and fiction alike.

As a contrast, consider this excerpt from Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince. "A prince ought to have no other aim or more thought nor select anything else for his study than war and its rules and discipline, for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules. And it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank."

"Because there is nothing proportionate between the armed and the unarmed, and it is not reasonable that he who is armed should yield obedience willingly to him who is unarmed, or that the unarmed man should be secure among armed servants. Because, there being in the one disdain and in the other suspicion, it is not possible for them to work well together."

Here, we can see a very different style. Machiavelli is famous for making the kind of broad sweeping, authoritative statements he's making here. Saying something like how a prince ought to have no thought but for fighting and war definitely dates this text, in terms of content. But it also expresses his dryer more purely informative and authoritative style. No metaphors here, right?

The thing to take away from this lesson is that all forms of writing, no matter how specific and regulated the genre might seem, have room for writers to express their personal style. Writers have the freedom to make their writing their own.

And indeed, they should do that, as nothing is more boring to read than text written by writer trying to hide, stifle, or smother his or her style. Still, we need to be mindful of the genre, audience, and purpose for or to which we write, in order to do so as effectively as possible.

Now, we're going to look at three short passages written in the same genre and for the same purpose. And all try to make the same claim but each with a different style. Here's the first paragraph.

"I am personally opposed to the death penalty, because I don't see what's fair about a government telling people not to kill people, then doing it itself. I guess that could be why I'm against war too. But still, to focus on the death penalty, it doesn't make much sense, since no murders are being prevented by it. All that's being done is a lot of money is spent on inmates who, in addition to being imprisoned for a while, get murdered too."

In this version, the tone is fairly familiar but leans towards an academic style, though the diction and syntax are a bit informal. It's something we could expect to see in an introductory composition class, though. Now, consider this paragraph, which makes the same argument. Look and listen for stylistic and tonal differences.

"The death penalty is an archaic notion, a relic of a bygone era, in which fear of the hangman's noose was used to keep troublemakers in line. Thankfully, our society has progressed sufficiently enough that we no longer require the threat of death to prevent crime."

"What we need is to promote trust in the government. And the best way to go about that is removing the last ties to a time when the people feared their government because of its ability to kill. The death penalty will be a good start."

This one was a bit different, wasn't it? But ask yourself, besides the words used and the vastly different attitude that this version presents, what's changed? Not much.

The argument is the same. And it even uses much the same line of reasoning-- that a government shouldn't ask citizens not to kill and then kill. Now, however, look at this, the last version of the argument we'll see.

"Why would you possibly support a government that blatantly violates its own laws. The hypocrites in charge aren't even satisfied with stealing, while telling us not to steal. But we all know they do that."

"They also tell us not to kill. But what do they do? They kill. And not just those women and children that they call quote "enemy combatants" end quote either. No, an angry or desperate or sick or even handicapped guy who kills someone may find himself-- it's usually a he after all-- the victim of murder, murder by the government that forbids it, that is."

This time, the total different should have been obvious, as this hypothetical writer's attitude is much more aggressive than either of the previous two. The tone, the voice, the style of writing, all point towards a much more emotionally engaged writer. But as you can probably tell, there's a reason that in composition generally advise against writing that comes, like this, from the gut.

After all, what are the chances, that you guess, this kind of argument would ever convince anyone who is not already on the writer's side. As you can see, not just within the same genre, but within the same topic and purpose, different tones can produce vastly different texts.

What did we learn today? We learned about tone and style and how a writer's personal style impacts the text they create. Then we looked at how different tones can change even the same argumentative stance, for better or worse. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Personal Style

The unique style for a particular writer.


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