How to describe tone

In the Unfamiliar Text exam you may be asked to describe the tone of a passage.

Tone is the writer’s attitude to a subject. To describe it imagine first of all someone reading out aloud the passage – or extract from the passage – that you have been given. Ask yourself the question: in what kind of tone of voice would it be read ? Would it be:

Sarcastic
Humorous
Scathing
Angry
Joyful
Serious
Full of reverence and respect
Contemptuous
Flippant
(not taking the subject seriously)
Dramatic
Playful/light-hearted
Ironic
(where there is a superficial tone and a hidden tone)
Or just…neutral (without a tone or point of view)…

Tone is created mostly by two techniques: word choice and sentence structure.

Word Choice

If the extract you are looking at is quite long, you can usually see that the words have something in common (maybe they are all sad I some way, or are harshly descriptive describing a brutal or unpleasant scene)

Look at the tone of this extract:

“Even the universal image of old age as a time of superior wisdom is passing away.”

In your answer explain the connotations of the words: ‘universal’ suggests that the image is found throughout time and in all places, and ‘wisdom’ suggests knowledge of a permanent kind. The phrase ‘passing away’ suggests a slow but complete loss. In this way, the word choice of the two earlier phrases creates a respectful tone which turns to one of dismay and regret with ‘passing away’.

Sentence Structure can also create a tone of voice in a text.

Look at this:

“Last November 11th, old men and women were doing what they are supposed to do best – remembering.”

The tone here is slightly sarcastic and critical and it is created through the word choice of ‘supposed’ (says who ?) but also the fact that the dash in the sentence creates a sting in its tail – as if an unexpected punchline has been delivered. The writer invites us to share in his dislike of those who think that all that the elderly can do is live in the past, and this critical tone is created partly through the punctuation.

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2 thoughts on “How to describe tone

  1. i am urgently looking for words to describe the TONE of the movie “the great debaters.” starring denzel washinton. i need this to complete my assignment for class – we must write a commentary/film review on it. this is a niversity education, and i need to pass and get that certificate. can u help me? hurry.

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