Tone in writing and communication captures the mood or emotion the author intends to convey. Rooted in linguistic choices, contextual cues, and author's perspective, tone can vary from formal to playful, or objective to emotional. By understanding its nuances, readers can better interpret texts, writers can enhance their connection with audiences, and effective communication is achieved across various mediums.

What is Tone?

Tone in writing and communication irefers to the mood or emotional character conveyed through a text. Specifically, e.g., tone refer to

  1. Emotional Resonance
    Tone can evoke specific emotions in readers, from elation and inspiration to melancholy and irritation. The way a writer crafts sentences, structures arguments, or even the stories they recount can impact how a reader feels while engaging with the text.
  2. Authorial Intent
    The writer’s intent, their specific purpose behind writing, largely shapes tone. For instance, an author aiming to persuade might employ a confident and assertive tone, while one seeking to entertain may opt for a lighter, humorous one.
  3. Consistency
    Maintaining a consistent tone is vital for coherence and reader engagement. While tonal shifts can be employed for effect, they should be intentional and not jarring.
  4. Contextual Adaptability
    Recognizing and adjusting tone based on the situation or audience is a skill. An op-ed in a newspaper might have a formal and earnest tone, while a blog post on the same topic could be informal and conversational. The words we choose, and the manner in which they are arranged, heavily influence tone. A statement framed as “The event was satisfactory” carries a different tone than saying “The event was outstanding.”
  5. Cultural Sensitivity
    Tone isn’t universal. What might be a neutral tone in one culture could be perceived as aggressive or overly casual in another. Being attuned to cultural nuances is essential, especially in global communication.
  6. Linguistic Nuance
    The specific word choices and structures that generate particular tonal effects.
  7. Reader Feedback
    The tone of a text can sometimes be best assessed through reader feedback. Readers’ interpretations and reactions can offer insights into whether the intended tone was achieved.
  8. Reflection of Subject Matter
    The subject often dictates the tone. A piece on a solemn topic, like a memorial, will naturally have a different tone than an article about a festive holiday celebration.

Examples on the Importance of Tone

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?

Tone — the way you say something — can have a profound impact on whether an audience is willing to listen to you and consider your observations and opinions. 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.

How does word choice effect tone?

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.