How can you determine the tone of an article?

Quick answer:

You can tell the tone of an article primarily by its diction and syntax. The subject matter and the place where the article appears also provide important clues.

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It might be helpful to begin by considering words that are often used to describe the tone of an article. Here is a short list of ways we might label the tone of an article:

  • offended
  • bitter
  • cautionary
  • passionate
  • humorous

How, then, does an author develop the tone of an article? Tone is conveyed by choosing specific words that will convey an author's feelings about a given topic. Let's imagine that an author wants to write about an environmental concern in his area. The words he chooses will help readers understand his emotional response to that concern. If he writes, "The water contamination in our local lake is a grave concern," readers might interpret that he is demonstrating a concerned tone.

However, he could phrase this information differently to convey an increased sense of anger: "Those who fail to protect our local lake from contamination reflect the ignorance and laziness that is too common in our area." In this second statement, there are "loaded" words that elicit a particular response: ignorance and laziness. These words can be inflammatory, demonstrating anger about the topic.

To determine the tone, pay attention to the kinds of words that are used by the author. Are they overall positive or negative? Once you make this assessment, you can begin to further classify tone by examining the author's overall message and goals of the article.

It's also important to remember that an article can have more than one tone. If the article covers multiple subtopics, the author's tone may shift to reflect varied or complex feelings about those subtopics. For example, while he may write in a caustic tone about water pollution, he could use a mournful tone to discuss the impact on the local animal populations.

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Most words in English have connotative as well as denotative meanings. The denotative meaning is the literal meaning of the word. The connotative meaning is the added cultural weight that a word develops over time. The classic example is the connotative difference between the words cheap and frugal. Both mean careful with money, but cheap has a negative connotation and frugal has a positive one. Thus, if you are reading an article, say, on government spending and read the word cheap, you can begin to determine that the author's tone is probably negative or disparaging. If a government official, however, is described as frugal, that suggests a more positive view.

The more emotionally weighted language an author uses, the more "loudly" the author's tone or feeling emerges. The use of more neutral language produces a more objective tone. Emotions aid memory: we are likely to remember a more emotional than less emotional piece of writing.

Ultimately, determining tone comes down to how the article makes you, as a reader, feel. If it makes you feel joyful or angry, you have caught the tone—or, at least, your interpretation of the tone, which you can then back up with words or phrases from the piece in question.

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When you are speaking, your tone of voice indicates your mood and how you expect your words to be received. In writing, the tone is conveyed largely through diction and syntax. These elements of prose are flexible enough to cover a wide variety of tones, though if you confine yourself to articles, this narrows the range somewhat. An article may be serious or humorous, personal or impersonal, academic or popular, ironic or sincere, or contain one two or more of these and many other tones.

If you are not certain of the tone of an article, it is worth considering the subject matter. An article about the Holocaust, for instance, is likely to have a serious, respectful tone. An article about food and drink may well be personal and opinionated, with many of the author's own preferences on display. An extreme example of subject matter affecting tone occurs in the title of the article on sarcasm attached below: "Oh great, an article about sarcasm—I am really looking forward to reading it." However, the majority of the article itself is explanatory and informative rather than sarcastic.

You should also think about where the article appears. Articles in scientific journals will probably have an academic, impersonal tone. Even within a single newspaper, the opinion columns will be more personal and informal than the front-page news articles, which will normally have a detached, impartial tone.

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By article, I assume you mean that you are reading something nonfiction. What, then, is the writer's attitude about the subject of the article? Is the subject a person? If so, how does he or she seem to feel about this person? Is the writer sympathetic or critical? Or, does he or she merely seek to be informative, mostly describing someone without taking any kind of judgmental stance on that person? Perhaps the writer addresses an idea or argument as his or her subject: do you get the sense that they want us to agree with this idea or disagree with it? If agree, then the tone could be approving; if you get the sense that we're supposed to disagree, then the tone might be disapproving. What kinds of words does the writer use to describe the events, people, or ideas he or she addresses? Words that have a positive connotation or negative? This can also give you some clues about the tone.

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To understand tone, you first must define what it means. Tone is the author's attitude toward his subject. You are right when you say many words could describe tone. Tone can be serious, scary, warning, sarcastic, humorous, teasing, and romantic. However, those are just a few examples.

Usually in a piece of writing, the tone is not directly stated. For example, you don't usually write, "The tone of this piece is ironic." Tone usually is implied. You infer the tone by analyzing how the author treats the subject. Is he poking fun? Is he deadly serious? Is he sarcastic?

I don't know what piece you are analyzing. However, the tone often is determined by the subject matter. For example, it would be in poor taste to have a whimsical tone when you are writing about an accidental death. However, whimsy might be just what you want when you are writing about some strange or funny event that posed no dangers.

Generally speaking, when you are writing a literary analysis, the tone is serious. You are trying to pull apart different literary elements and explain their meaning.

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