I. What is Tone?
Tone does not mean quite the same thing in literature as it does for the way people speak, but it’s pretty close; it refers to the “feel” of a piece of writing. It’s a more complex and general quality than, say, an “angry tone of voice”; instead it is closer to the meaning of “style” or “voice” in writing, possibly referring to any or all of the stylistic qualities the writing, such as formality, dialect, and atmosphere.
II. Examples of Tone
I’ll just swing by your office at 4 tomorrow!
I will meet you in your office tomorrow at 4:00.
These two sentences convey exactly the same ideas, but one does it in a highly informal tone while the other uses a formal tone. The tone is set by many different features: contractions (such as “I’ll”) are key indicators of informal tone. And there’s also a colloquialism (“swing by”) and an informal punctuation mark (!). In contrast, the more formal sentence uses perfect grammar, no idioms, and higher level vocabulary.
In addition to style, tone can also be set by content. That is, your tone is mostly about how you express your ideas, but it’s also partially about what you express. For example, if you’re writing a philosophy paper on ethics and you use a case study as an example, your selection of the example will help set the tone. A silly example will set a humorous, informal tone, while a more serious example will have the opposite effect.
III. Types of Tone
There are an infinite number of different tones, all composed of different qualities such as dark, humorous, serious, emotional, objective, chaotic, etc. Perhaps the most important aspect of tone, though, is the formal / informal distinction. Every piece of writing falls somewhere along the sliding scale between extremely formal (appropriate for business letters, academic publications, etc.) and extremely informal (appropriate for text messages between close friends). For the sake of simplicity, this article will focus primarily on the difference between formal and informal tone.
IV. The Importance of Tone
Tone affects how readers will respond to your writing. Although its effects can be very subtle, they are profound, in much the same way as a person’s body language and overall personality. You may not be able to put your finger on exactly why, but different people have a remarkably different kind of presence, and the same thing is true of writing.
Thus, tone is important in writing the same way personality is important in any situation. In theory, it should be less important than the substance of what you’re saying; but in practice that’s just not how it works. People are persuaded by tone and personality much more than they are by logical arguments, so it’s absolutely crucial to set your tone correctly. If you are writing a legal brief, for example, and the tone is too informal, then it won’t matter how brilliant your arguments are. Similarly, if you’re writing the script for a radio ad and the tone is too stiff and formal, then it won’t matter how useful the information is!
V. Examples of Tone in Literature
Great novelists are easy to recognize from their tones. Often, the tone of the narration matches the tone that the major characters use in their everyday speech. For example, Jane Austen’s novels are about wealthy families in the English countryside and the social conventions that rule their lifestyles; accordingly, the tone of her novels tends to be formal and grammatically precise (though certainly not without humor)! On the other hand, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is about a bitter, lonely teenage boy, and so the tone is much more informal, biting, and sarcastic.
And the trees all died. They were orange trees. I don’t know why they died, they just died. (Donald Barthelme, The School)
Children’s speech has a unique tone to it. In this passage, a childlike tone is created through short, choppy sentences and simple vocabulary (diction). Each sentence is grammatically simple, without frills or detail. But notice how the bleak mood of the passage is in direct contrast to its childlike tone; in this case, the author’s tone helps him undermine the clichés about the innocence and joy of childhood.
VI. Examples of Tone in Pop Culture
There are many differences between Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, even though both are popular high fantasy series. One of the most important differences is tone, and this applies to both the books and the films. Whereas Lord of the Rings has an epic, mythological tone to its writing, Harry Potter is more casual and straightforward in tone. Although neither series is exactly what you would call “formal,” Lord of the Rings is certainly closer to formal, or “high style.”
You may dance if you fancy it; you may take leave of your companions. For your friends do not partake in the dance, and if they shall not partake in the dance then they shan’t be among my companions. (Joseph Ducreaux meme)
This is one of the oldest games around: take the lyrics of a popular song, and translate them into an archaic and overly formal tone. These days, the game is often played on the internet, and the results are layered on top of an image of Joseph Ducreaux. In this example, the lyrics come from “Safety Dance” by Men At Work.
VII. Related Terms
One aspect of tone is diction, or the particular words and sentence structures used by a given author. If your diction emphasizes slang terms, for example, then the tone of the writing will inevitably be informal. Conversely, complex and sophisticated diction will create a more formal tone.
Tone can play a role in crafting an author’s “persona,” or the personality that they take on as an author. Persona is mostly a feature of fiction, where the narrator plays an important role in the story. For example, if your story is in first person (using “I”), then your persona as author is the main character who’s narrating the story. But a third-person narrator can also have a persona – for example, does your narrator crack jokes about the characters, or is he/she completely serious about the story? Similarly, in nonfiction it’s important to decide what kind of “character” you want to paint yourself as in your writing. In formal writing, convention states that the persona should be a detached, objective observer – but this is still a kind of persona!
Tone is very closely related to “mood,” or the overall emotional color of a piece. Indeed, these two terms are almost synonymous. The only difference is that mood refers to an emotional quality, whereas tone can refer to emotional and non-emotional qualities alike. So, a “sad tone” is the same thing as a “sad mood”; but you could only say that a piece has a “formal tone,” not a “formal mood,” because formality is not an emotion.