What is Tone?

Tone is the way you say something. When speaking, tone is evident in the way you pronounce your words, the syllables you emphasize, the way you slow down and speed up over each sound. Spoken tone is also enhanced by your facial expression and hand gesture.

When writing, you can’t lean on body language or spoken voice. Instead, you need to use the elements of style, especially diction, syntax, and appeals to pathos, ethos, and logos.

Have you ever gotten mad about something someone told you just because of the way they said it to you? Maybe it was criticism you needed to hear, but still, they took so much pleasure bringing you down that you lost your temper. Well, then, you know all about tone!

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . should consider the tone (and voice and persona) of their discourse. Otherwise, they risk being ignored.  When the goal is to persuade an audience with an opposing view, writers think carefully need to think about how their tone and voice will affect their readers.

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

Ex: I bought a car.

   Ex: I effected a transaction to advance my transportational needs.

The first is simple and direct. The second is pretentious to the point of gibberish. But tone is often more than this. Consider these sentences:

Ex: You should probably get a haircut.

   Ex: I know you don’t really want to, but you should consider a haircut in the near future.

  Ex: Your hair is a bit shaggy. Have you considered a haircut?

The first sentence is direct and informal—you  might say this to someone you know well. The second sentence is also informal, but adds some consideration for the audience’s feelings. By doing this, the speaker has shown concern for any doubts the audience may have—in certain situations, this kind of consideration may be the key to persuading the reader to agree with you! The final sentence puts the burden of action on the audience. The speaker has made an observation and a subtle suggestion. For some situations, this may be effective. For others, it may not work at all.

Tone also reveals how the writer feels about the topic at hand. Consider these sentences:

Ex: The police should be respected at all times.

Ex: The cops should be respected accordingly. 

The first sentence is formal and suggests admiration for law enforcement. The second sentence says the same thing, but in a subtly different way. The replacement of the formal “police” with the less formal “cops” reveals  not a lack of respect, but less respect for law enforcement. The phrase “should be respected accordingly” may suggest that law enforcement deserve respect, but the addition of “accordingly” suggests that respect given is respect returned— that the speaker is not automatically respectful— only if the “cops” are first respectful in turn. Tone can be subtle like this. What does your word choice say about your attitudes?

How can I improve my tone?

If someone has commented on your tone, you should step back and consider the assignment again. What is your purpose? Who is your audience? What message are you trying to communicate? Tone may be a matter of formality. It may be a question of your feelings about the topic. Or it may be that you are addressing the wrong audience for the assignment.

When revising your tone, picture your audience in front of you. What words will they respond to? What words will they understand and appreciate? When in doubt, go back to the beginning: what is the assignment?

Why is it important to use appropriate academic language?

The words writers choose reflect the formality or informality of the rhetorical situation. Academic writing often calls for the use of formal diction, in contrast to the less formal language of everyday conversation. The use of conversational language and informal tone—writing as we speak—in academic papers is often too casual and may weaken the credibility of the writer. On the other hand, the use of language that is pompous or stuffy can make the writing sound overly complex. Utilizing language appropriate to the academic context can help to create balanced communication between writer and reader.

How can informal or overly formal language be revised?

  • Replace slang or colloquial (conversational) terms with precise, conventional language.
  • Replace informal conversational language with academically-focused language; the use of third-person point of view and appropriate terminology can often help with this process.
  • Simplify language that may come across as pompous or stuffy.

Let’s look at an example:

  • Informal: When he talked about the BP Oil Spill, President Obama dropped names to impress his audience. (casual, conversational language)
  • Pompous: Communicating with the municipal group concerning the petrol company’s misfortunate escape of emollient, President Obama alludes to erudite scientific scholars and research communities so as to institute a sense of trust amongst his supporters. (pompous, stuffy)
  • Formal: In his speech regarding the BP Oil Spill, President Obama referenced knowledgeable scientists and research groups in order to establish credibility with his audience. (appropriate academic language) 

Marcus, Ezra. (2020, December 9)  Tone is hard to grasp online. Can tone indicators help?  New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/09/style/tone-indicators-online.html