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tone

Attributed to Edward Koch, mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989

Definition:

A writer's attitude toward subject, audience, and self.

Tone is primarily conveyed through diction, point of view, syntax, and level of formality.

See also:

Etymology:

From the Latin, "string, a stretching"

Examples and Observations:

  • Tone and Persona
    "If persona is the complex personality implicit in the writing, tone is a web of feelings stretched throughout an essay, feelings from which our sense of the persona emerges. Tone has three main strands: the writer's attitude toward subject, reader, and self.

    "Each of these determinants of tone is important, and each has many variations. Writers may be angry about a subject or amused by it or discuss it dispassionately. They may treat readers as intellectual inferiors to be lectured (usually a poor tactic) or as friends with whom they are talking. Themselves they may regard very seriously or with an ironic or an amused detachment (to suggest only three of numerous possibilities). Given all these variables, the possibilities of tone are almost endless.

    "Tone, like persona, is unavoidable. You imply it in the words you select and in how you arrange them."
    (Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988)


  • Tone and Diction
    "The main factor in tone is diction, the words that the writer chooses. For one kind of writing, an author may choose one type of vocabulary, perhaps slang, and for another the same writer may choose an entirely different set of words. . . .

    "Even such small matters as contractions make a difference in tone, the contracted verbs being less formal:
    It is strange that the professor had not assigned any papers for three weeks.
    It's strange that the professor hadn't assigned any papers for three weeks."
    (W. Ross Winterowd, The Contemporary Writer: A Practical Rhetoric, 2nd ed. Harcourt, 1981)


  • Sentence Sounds
    "Robert Frost believed sentence tones (which he called 'sound of sense') are 'already there--living in the cave of the mouth.' He considered them 'real cave things: they were before words were' (Thompson 191). To write a 'vital sentence,' he believed, 'we must write with the ear on the speaking voice' (Thompson 159). 'The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader. Eye readers miss the best part. The sentence sound often says more than the words' (Thompson 113). According to Frost:
    Only when we are making sentences so shaped [by spoken sentence tones] are we truly writing. A sentence must convey a meaning by tone of voice and it must be the particular meaning the writer intended. The reader must have no choice in the matter. The tone of voice and its meaning must be in black and white on the page.
    (Thompson 204)
    "In writing, we can't indicate body language, but we can control how sentences are heard. And it is through our arrangement of words into sentences, one after another, that we can approximate some of the intonation in speech that tells our readers not only information about the world but also how we feel about it, who we are in relationship to it, and who we think our readers are in relationship to us and the message we want to deliver."
    (Dona Hickey, Developing a Written Voice. Mayfield, 1993)


  • "The quietness of his tone italicized the malice of his reply."
    (Truman Capote)


  • "We are not won by arguments that we can analyze but by the tone and temper, by the manner which is the man himself."
    (Samuel Butler)
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