If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Analyzing tone through word choice | Reading

Tone communicates how an author feels about their topic. How do good readers pick up on tone from clues left by the words an author chooses? Let’s discuss, and find out together! Created by David Rheinstrom.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [David] Hello readers, I suppose it's time, if we have to to talk about tone. You see, if I were feeling snide or dismissive or sarcastic, I'd use a lot of disdainful language to talk about how little I valued this topic, which is a piddling trifle, a Bagatelle, a trivial, little nothing. Far more likely though, considering my love of languages, the notion that I'd be enthusiastic and encouraging, I would say understanding tone unlocks a treasure house of understanding, it is a feast of knowledge. Tone communicates how an author feels about the topic they're writing about, this can come across in a number of different ways, it can reflect their enthusiasm or skepticism, it can also communicate formality or informality, an academic paper or a speech before the UN, for example are very different things from a toast at a wedding or a thank you card for a birthday gift and this kind of difference in tone is something that sociologists and linguists call register. Social conventions and customs call for different registers in different circumstances, just as it would be inappropriate in most situations to wear a tuxedo at the beach, so too would it be incongruous to use extremely formal language in an informal setting? (melodic orchestral music) (clearing throat) Dear honored sir, it was the privilege of my very life to have you attend my 14th birthday party. I am grateful beyond words for your most generous gift, a check for $36 American. Your humble and obedient servant, David. In fact using extremely formal language and high-minded gratitude for something as relatively small as a birthday gift might even come across as sarcastic or insulting. But this is sort of an extreme example, let's pull back and discuss how an understanding of tone can aid you in making sense of informational texts. One great way to do that is to analyze word choice, we can look at a writer's language and determine their attitude towards the subject based on the words they've chosen to describe it. Oceans of ink have been spilled over comparisons between a Chicago style hotdog and a New York style hotdog. The first with its garden's worth of toppings, but a holier than now prohibition of ketchup, the latter with its sauerkraut, mustard and dubious dirty water cooking style. But scant attention, a droplet of ink before the ocean has been paid to the half-smoke, the unsung but mighty regional sausage of Washington DC. Now how does the author think about the subject? Well, we know that they think that not enough writing has been done about DC's regional sausage, the half-smoke, but how do they feel about it? How do the words they use express their feelings? Let's break it down bit by bit. So right out of the gate, we have oceans of ink, this is a deliberate piece of overstatement, there are no literal oceans made of ink, but it's being set up in opposition to the droplet of ink used to describe half-smokes later in the paragraph. Half-smokes are described as unsung, but mighty, which suggests that they haven't been given their due, there hasn't been enough praise for half-smokes and that therefore the amount of attention given to Chicago and New York hotdogs is unfair or even disproportionate. I think we can also determine from word choice, that the author thinks a Chicago hot dog is a little ridiculous and that a New York hot dog is a little gross. How do we know this? Chicagoans generally don't like ketchup on their hotdogs and the way the author phrases this is by saying, that they have a holier than thou prohibition on ketchup, which is to say they get all haughty and upset about it, which is weird because it's ketchup, listen, I'm a Chicagoan by birth, I used to feel this way and I'm not even sure why. Similarly the word dubious in the description of the New York hotdog, meaning doubtful suggests that the dirty water cooking method is kind of nasty sounding, why would the author do this? Is it to say these are terrible hot dogs and nobody should eat them? No, I don't think so, The author is trying to make room for the half-smoke in the national sausage conversation and to do that, they're first trying to dismantle the importance of New York and Chicago style by making fun of them. These are tactical choices, not to be confused with authorial voice, which is a different concept entirely an author's voice is their style, it's much more consistent across topics, whereas a tone is specific to a topic. So I might have an authorial voice, that uses a lot of goofy wordplay, but I use a sympathetic tone to talk about bears and a hostile tone to talk about, I don't know, whales, yeah, boo whales, I said it. I do not actually hate whales, I love whales. But my point is this, use your knowledge of words, of the connotation and implications of the language, that an author might use to unlock your understanding of their tone, because if you can do that, my friend, you can learn anything, David out.