Author’s Tone

One question type you may encounter on the Reading Comprehension is a style or tone question. Since most of the passages on the RC section tend to be informational articles with neutral tones, style and tone questions are particularly rare to find. For example, it would not be very challenging if you were asked to identify the tone of a passage about the many types of metamorphic rock – the tone such a passage is generally known to carry is a neutral one. The trouble comes about usually when you come across a passage that is heavily opinionated or filled with emotions! It is in these passages that you find an inclination or emotional charge on the author’s part, and this becomes your first cue to start looking for a tone (generally a positive or a negative one) underlying the author’s writing. When the author feels about what he/she is writing or does seem to carry a strong opinion about it, you will know it. For example, an author who judges something “promising” is going to be enthusiastic about it. Whereas, an author who deems something “unsatisfactory” or even “troubling” is going to be very vocal about his/her disappointment about it. It is these words within quotes (or simple the feels, basically) that you should be able to catch as you read along.

Most style or tone questions will include the words “attitude,” “tone,” “style,” “feeling,” etc.
Some examples of a typical “tone” question would look like this:

  • The author’s attitude toward global warming might best be described as which of the following?
  • Which of the following best describes the tone of the passage?
  • Based on the statements in lines 13-16, which of the following could be inferred about the author’s attitude toward socialism?

The best way to identify the tone of a passage is to examine specific words in the passage that are sure to carry positive or negative connotations. If I were writing a passage about global warming, and a sentence read “fortunately, these brilliant scientists were able to combine their wits and begin formulating promising solutions,” it should be clearly evident to the reader that my tone is positive and optimistic. In fact, it seems to easily come off from my writing that I have developed respect for these scientists, and actually consider their research worthwhile.

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While this was an example of a positive connotation, a similar example of a negative one could be: “the irresponsible scientists pooled together their half-baked theories to create the most egregious scare tactic of the 21st century.” Notice the sharp change in opinion and consideration that has occurred owing simply to the choice of words and the style in which the line has been written. It is imperative to remember that these words, possibly unnoticeable at times, are the key to identifying the author’s tone.

Now, the example given above is actually a bit of an extreme that has been used for demonstration purposes, to essentially indicate what tone means. The tricky part, of course, is the fact that on the test the passages will be more neutral in tone, and possibly never this extreme. In fact, to make things harder, the passage will likely avoid extremes altogether. Therefore, the correct answers to these tone questions will avoid extremes as well. Remember this when you examine the answer choices. If you notice that the author is being mildly skeptical about her/his topic, it will be altogether incorrect to choose an answer choice that indicates the tone as being “dismissive” or “vengeful”, or even “disoriented”. Note how all of the above words are extremes in their own ways and essentially complete misrepresentations of the author’s actual tone. Remember that “skeptical” in itself does not carry a negative connotation. Another similar word that also does not do the same is “dicey”.

As you read, you must learn to pay special attention to word choice. Remember that detecting subtlety is key for mastering this reading comprehension question type.

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