Tone is Everywhere

The tone in this photo is partially due to the woman's pose. It's also due to the lighting and coloring. The effect would be different if the photograph were in color.Tone is, according to Perrine’s Literature, “the emotional coloring, or the emotional meaning, of the work.” Not only is it the “coloring,” but it also is the writer’s or speaker’s “attitude toward the subject, the reader, or herself or himself.” Tone, then, is found in speech. It’s found in writing. It’s found in music, and it’s found in art. Tone is everywhere.

Tone in speech is the most common and, therefore, the most easily understood. Tone typically is controlled by inflection and non-verbal cues. The word “jerk,” for instance, can be understood in a variety of ways, all of which depend on the speaker’s tone. The tone can be serious, or it can be playful. In either case, the interpretation of the tone is dependent upon the person hearing the word, and he or she may interpret it correctly or incorrectly.

Tone in art and music may not be considered quite as often, but it usually is interpreted in common ways. Those commonalities result in certain sounds and colors being used to indicate suspense, excitement, or fear. The audience hears those sounds or sees those colors and prepares for what is to follow. In art, the commonalities can be the stroke; sharp strokes or thick ones often can convey intensity or anger. Color, too, is important as is the placement of it. The color red, for example, can be used to illustrate a number of emotions depending on the intensity, the amount, and the placement of the color.

Tone in writing perhaps is the hardest to interpret as the speaker’s voice isn’t there to guide the reader, and the elements of written tone are not always as universal as color or sound. Even if the reader explores all the possible components of written tone – sentence construction, rhythm, formal patterns, understatement, metaphor, connotation – the reader is never guaranteed one hundred percent accuracy in interpreting that tone. The reader guesses, based on his or her experience with those elements. The reader who has practiced those elements and has studied them perhaps has a better grasp of tone than the reader who has not; however, each reader is returned to the beginning every time he or she reads something new, whether it be an email from someone he or she doesn’t know or a blog post by a newly discovered blogger. The reader reads the email or the post, and he or she reads it carefully. The reader becomes more and more familiar with the meanings and connotations of words and increasingly alert to the presence of irony and other figures of speech. The reader does so because he or she understands not only that tone is everywhere but also that it is an important part of the full meaning of a work and his or her response to it.

Photo: Sheldon Wood (CC BY NC SA 2.0)


  1. I’ve noticed that there are times that I don’t know the tone intended and can’t decide how the author intended the statement to be understood. In a book I’m reading now, written by a liberal, with a main character who is a liberal, talking about a character who is a conservative. He asks himself over and over how the guy can have his point-of-view. It is unclear if the character, who is drunk, is questioning his own beliefs or if it is him literally being obtuse about the other character’s point-of-view.
    I’ve actually had a conversation with a friend, while golfing many years ago. He is a politician and said almost the same thing, but he wasn’t putting down his opponent, he was questioning his own beliefs, and finding it difficult.
    I suspect that because of the authors own views and his main audience is the ultra left community of Iowa City, he was just bashing the conservative and wasn’t trying to be deep, but it is hard to say, because his writing is excellent with many layers.  Bottom line, I don’t know what was happening in that scene. So, I stopped reading and lost interest.
    Tone is important and in this instance, the ambiguity sort of ruined it for me.

    • ExtremelyAvg Livefyre comment notifications are acting wonky today. You commented ten hours ago? I’m sorry I didn’t reply earlier. I just received the email a few minutes ago.
      An ambiguous tone is one thing; ambiguity is another. I can’t think of a good example of ambiguous tone at the moment. Maybe something will come to me. Ambiguity is a tough place to work, though. The reader has to trust you completely to go into that state. Perhaps this author needed to do a better job of fleshing out the main character so that an ambiguous nature would work. What person was the work? Ambiguity tends to work best in first person, I think. I’m now thinking of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

  2. The only jerk I like is the seasoning that goes on chicken. Mmmmmmm……tasty. 
    Great points as always. In context of language tone is easy to understand if you are face to face but when written doesn’t it take time to discern?

    • rdopping Yes, it does, which is yet another reason to read carefully and to pause before hitting send when replying to an email or firing off a blog comment. It also takes becoming familiar with a particular person’s stance or writing style. It’s one reason it’s immediately obvious when someone is guest posting here. The tone and style are entirely different. In that sense, tone is a part of voice.