Tone English Langugage

When we write, read, or speak, the meaning of the language we use and encounter can be dramatically altered by the tone in the exchange. What is tone? How is tone created? What different tones exist? These are all things we will be discussing in this article. 

Tone English Langugage Tone English Langugage

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Table of contents

    We'll also look at some definitions, examples, and effects of tone to give you a fully-rounded understanding of the concept. It's likely that tone is a topic you're already familiar with as you would have used a variety of different tones in different social situations.

    Introduction of tone

    What is a tone in the English language? When we're reading a novel, we might notice that as the action in the story develops or when a conflict arises, the tone of the writing changes.

    For example, it might become more urgent if a character is in trouble. The same is true when we're writing something. In an email to a teacher, for instance, it's not necessarily going to be appropriate to use a casual and humorous tone; instead, we would try to sound more professional and direct.

    When we speak to other people in verbal exchanges, tone is also incredibly important. Tones in English verbal exchanges can significantly impact the meaning of an utterance or conversation.

    Tone, Introduction to Tone and how it can impact the meaning, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Tone can impact the meanings portrayed in a conversation.

    As we move through this article, we're going to look at what tone is, some examples of different kinds of tone, and the effects that tone has on written and verbal communication. On that note, let's dive in!

    Tone definition in English

    In the study of English language, the definition of tone is as follows:

    Tone refers to the use of pitch (how high or low your voice or a sound is) and other sound qualities such as volume and tempo (speed) in language to create lexical or grammatical meaning. This means that tone is created when people use pitch to change the meaning of the grammar and word choices they use when they speak.

    In writing, where language has no pitch or volume, tone refers to the writer's attitude towards a subject or how their perspective influences the mood of the text. Tone in writing can also be related directly to the plot of the story and how the action develops. A sense of tone can be created in writing through the use of capitalisation and punctuation, as well as through strategic word choices, figurative language, and imagery, but we'll look at that a bit more shortly.

    Different types of tones

    In your study of English language, and indeed in your wider reading and social interactions, there are different types of tones. The different types tones can illustrate different kinds of feelings and attitudes, and can be used to reflect different events that are going on around you. You'll also often find that tones can be paired with their opposites. A few different examples of tone pairs you might find in English include:

    • Formal vs. informal: e.g. 'Do contact me if you require any further clarification.' vs. 'Let me know if you need help.'

    • Serious vs. humorous: e.g. 'If that dog chews one more of my shoes, he's going to have to find a new home.' vs. 'Oi, Fluffy! Get back here with my shoe!'

    • Optimistic vs. worried: e.g. 'I know things seem tough at the moment but there's always a light at the end of the tunnel, you'll see!' vs. 'Everything is going wrong. I don't know how we're going to make it through the month.'

    • Aggressive vs. friendly: e.g. 'If you think you're going to steal my job, you're in for a rude awakening, pal!' vs 'I'm so glad to have you working on my team. Together we'll be stronger!'

    These eight types of tone can be created using different strategies, which will vary depending on whether the exchange is written or verbal. This is also just a small sample of the types of tone that can be created in different interactions.

    Can you think of any other kinds of tone? What sorts of tone do you often come into contact with when you talk to your friends and family?

    The tones in English language examples

    As we mentioned above, different types of tones can be created in different ways, and the mode of delivery will also impact the methods used to create tone.

    Mode refers to the way in which something is experienced or done. When we talk about mode of delivery, we're talking about the way in which an exchange takes place. This could be verbally (having a chat with a friend) or written (an email chain between colleagues).

    What are some of the different strategies that can be used to create different tones? Let's explore further:

    Strategies for creating tone verbally

    If we look back at the definition of tone, we can see that things like pitch, volume, and tempo are important factors when it comes to creating a certain tone.

    As such, when we're speaking, we can create different types of tones by raising or lowering our voices, talking more loudly or softly, or talking more slowly or quickly!

    Urgent tone

    If you noticed a fire in a classroom and wanted to alert the other people around, you would want to create a tone of urgency. Instead of saying something calm, slow, and quiet like 'Guys, I think there's a fire over there.', you would instead say something like 'FIRE! There's a fire! There's a fire in the chemistry lab!' You would create a sense of urgency by speaking more loudly, probably more quickly, and your voice would likely raise in pitch as a higher voice is often more likely to be heard and catch someone's attention than a very low one.

    Tone, Different Types of Tone: Urgent, StudySmarterFig. 2 - An urgent tone of voice would include someone speaking quicker, louder and higher pitched than usual.

    Serious tone

    If a student gets in trouble with a teacher for repeatedly disrupting the class, it's likely that the teacher is going to use a fairly serious tone when speaking to the student. Instead of sounding happy and casual and saying something like 'Hey James! Why don't we try not to disturb our classmates, huh?', the teacher would create a more serious tone by lowering their voice, speaking at a more even volume, and speaking fairly slowly rather than very quickly. This could sound something like 'James, I'm only going to tell you this one more time before I get the headmaster involved. You need to stop acting up in class and disturbing the others.'

    Excited tone

    If you had a big birthday party coming up and were really excited for it, in conversation with your friends, you wouldn't just say something like 'Yeah the party is this weekend. I'm really looking forward to it.'. Instead, you'd probably say something like 'It's my party this weekend, woohoo! I'm so excited ahhhh!' and you'd likely be talking quite loudly, at quite a high pitch, and you might be talking quite fast as well to signal your excitement.

    Word choice and non-lexical conversation sounds

    When we engage in spoken interactions, we create different tones not only based on the sound qualities of our voices (such as volume, pitch, and tempo), but also with our word choices and use of non-lexical conversation sounds.

    A non-lexical conversation sound is any sound a person might use in conversation that is not a word in and of itself, but still contributes meaning to an utterance. Common non-lexical conversation sounds include: ahh, awhh, mm-hmm, uh-huh, err, umm etc. These sounds can be used to add meaning to what has already been said and therefore influence the communication of different tones or attitudes, or can be used to control different aspects of the conversation.

    In the 'urgent' tone example above, there are no non-lexical conversation sounds, however, the repeated word 'fire' emphasises the urgency by stressing what the danger in the situation is. The 'serious' tone example shows how the non-lexical conversation sound 'huh' would detract from the sense of seriousness by making the teacher's utterance more familiar and casual.

    In contrast, the teacher choosing to use the phrase 'one more time' shows us that this is a repeated offense which is therefore worthy of a more serious reaction. Finally, in the 'excited' tone example, the non-lexical conversation sounds 'woohoo' and 'ahhhh' are used to ramp up the speaker's excitement, contributing to the excited tone.

    Different tones in writing

    As we stated at the beginning of this article, literal pitch and volume don't exist in writing. This means that writers need to employ different strategies to convey a sense of characters talking louder or more quietly, with a higher or lower pitch, or faster or more slowly. This can be achieved through the use of capitalisation and punctuation.

    Let's look at some examples. We'll use the same tones that we explored for the verbal examples, and we'll use the same scenarios as well. Let's imagine that each of those scenarios happened in a piece of fiction.

    Urgent tone

    'There's smoke coming out the chemistry lab window.' Sarah mumbled as her eyes widened.

    'What did you say?' Miss Smith stopped writing on the whiteboard and turned around.

    'There's smoke coming out the chemistry window! FIRE! Quick, everyone, there's a fire! We need to get out, NOW!' Sarah jumped up, knocking over her chair.

    In this example, a student called Sarah has noticed the smoke and at first, is almost stunned by it. Her tone quickly becomes more urgent when the teacher, Miss Smith, prompts her to repeat what she has said. The use of exclamation marks after every sentence shows that Sarah is talking more loudly, and the words that are fully capitalised ('FIRE' and 'NOW') illustrate that she is now shouting, which adds more severity to the sense of urgency.

    Serious tone

    Miss Smith turned around as she heard a pencil case clatter to the floor. James had pushed Beth's pencil case off her desk for the third time in a week. Beth had gone red, with embarrassment or anger, no one could be sure. James flopped backwards in his chair and crossed his arms, smirking.

    'James. I need you to pack up your things right now, and get yourself to Mr. Jones' office. This will be the last time you disrupt my class.' Miss Smith's voice was cold as steel.

    In this example, the character of James has repeatedly disrupted Miss Smith's lesson by harassing another student and Miss Smith has decided that enough is enough. Instead of using lots of punctuation that would convey strong emotions or increased volume, Miss Smith's sentences are short, simple, and end with full stops. This creates a serious, almost menacing tone as it is quite an emotionless way of speaking.

    Tone, Example of how to Create Tone, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Speaking with a serious tone of voice can make someone sound almost menacing and emotionless.

    Excited tone

    'Ahhhh Bellaaaa!' Nancy squealed over Bella's shoulder.

    'Oh my gosh, what? That was so loud and unnecessary.' Bella playfully shoved Nancy away.

    'Guess whose birthday it is in five days...MINE!!!' Nancy's shout was paired with a little dance.

    In this example, we can gather that Nancy is excited about her birthday if we look at the repeated letters in 'Ahhhh Bellaaaa!' which give the impression that these two words are more drawn out rather than being short and punchy. The use of multiple exclamation marks also shows that Nancy is speaking at a higher volume which is a common marker of excitement. We also see that the word 'mine' is in all capitals which suggests that Nancy shouted this, again emphasising the tone of excitement.

    Word choices and imagery

    Tone can be created in writing not just by how the writer portrays a character's speech, but also in the word choices they use and imagery they create.

    In the fire example, for instance, the fact that Sarah's eyes widen is an indicator that something has shocked her. This physical description adds to the sense of urgency by painting a mental picture in the reader's mind. In other words, imagery can also be used to emphasise tone in writing. In the 'serious' tone example, the simile 'cold as steel' is used to describe Miss Smith's voice. This amps up the serious tone by giving the reader a more vivid insight into the scene. In the birthday example, we are told that Nancy did a 'little dance' as she shouted about her birthday. This is a strong visual image that encapsulates excitement.

    Figurative language and tone

    Taking it one step further, tone can also be created through the use of figurative language techniques such as metaphors, similes, and other literary devices. Let's look at a few of these devices:

    Metaphors

    David's bald head was a shining lighthouse in the sea of hairy heads in the crowd.

    This metaphor emphasises the shine of David's head by comparing it to a lighthouse sticking out of a 'sea of hairy heads'. This creates quite a humorous tone, as the language used to describe David's head is not negative, but still vividly picks out the fact that he is bald. If the reader tries to picture this scene more literally according to the metaphor, the resulting mental image would be quite funny.

    'A breeze blew through the room, blew the curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling.' 1

    In this example from The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald compares the ceiling to a 'frosted wedding cake', which suggests that the ceiling has a very intricate design. This description creates a tone of luxury and wealth, as it demonstrates how ornate and carefully finished the Buchanans' house is. There might also be a slight sense of mocking or disdain in this metaphor, as if the narrator, Nick, thinks that the highly decorated ceiling is ridiculous.

    Similes

    As Tracy slipped on the icy pavement, she felt the unmistakable snap of her ankle, and the pain washed over her like a tsunami.

    In this example, the pain Tracy feel is likened to a tsunami, which illustrates to the reader how intense and all-encompassing the pain must have been. This vivid description creates a tone of dread and seriousness as the reader is left unsure of what state Tracy is going to be left in. The reader can also imagine how awful the experience of breaking an ankle must be, which emphasises this sense of dread.

    'His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.' 2

    In this excerpt from Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas, two similes are used to describe features of St. Nicholas' face. Firstly, his smile is likened to an archery bow, and secondly, his beard is said to be as white as the snow. Both of these similes paint a mental image of St. Nicholas as being a jolly and benevolent character, and this creates a friendly and cosy tone. The sense of cosiness is emphasised by the reference to snow - St. Nicholas' beard may be like snow, but the children waiting for him are tucked up in their beds!

    Personification

    The creaky old boat groaned in protest as the waves banged it repeatedly against the edge of the dock.

    In this example, we see the boat being personified (given human-like attributes) by how it 'groaned in protest'. Boats obviously cannot purposefully groan, and they are also incapable of feeling dissatisfaction, so this use of personification creates a tone of suspense as if the repeated banging of the boat into the dock might cause some damage. The reader can sense that bad weather might be causing the unruly waves, and bad weather is often a sign of unfortunate events about to happen.

    'The little dog laughed to see such fun,

    and the Dish ran away with the Spoon.'

    In the well-known English nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle, we are told that the Dish ran away with the Spoon. Neither a dish nor a spoon can run, let alone run away together in a potentially romantic manner, so this is an example of personification. This creates a tone of fun and fantasy, creating an almost dream-like scene.

    Tone - Key Takeaways

    • Tone refers to the use of pitch, volume, and tempo in speech to create meaning, and in writing, refers to the attitude or perspective of the writer.
    • There are many different kinds of tones that can be created using different methods such as particular word choices, speaking more loudly, or altering the pitch of our voice.
    • Non-lexical conversation sounds are any sounds that are not words but still add meaning to an utterance.
    • In text, tone can be created through the use of punctuation and capitalisation, as well as through word choices and the use of imagery.
    • Tone is very important in all kinds of exchange as it can drastically alter the meaning of something that is said.

    1. F.S.Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. 1925

    2. C.C. Moore. A Visit From St. Nicholas. 1823

    Frequently Asked Questions about Tone English Langugage

    What is 'tone' in English Language?

    'Tone' refers to the use of pitch, volume, and tempo of the voice to create meaning. In writing, tone refers to how the author conveys their beliefs or opinions on a particular topic, or how they show what a character is going through.

    What are the different types of tone?

    There are many different kinds of tone that we can create and use in both written and verbal interactions. Some examples of tone include:

    • formal
    • informal
    • serious
    • humorous
    • optimistic
    • aggressive
    • friendly
    • worried

    Basically, any emotion you feel can be translated into a tone!

    What are the four components of tone?

    In writing, there are generally four different components of tone. These are:

    • humour - whether a text is funny or not.
    • formality - how formal or casual a text is.
    • respectfulness - whether the text aims to be respectful of a person, idea, or situation.
    • enthusiasm - how energetic or excited a text sounds. 


    In spoken interactions, the main components of tone are:

    • pitch - how high or low your voice is.
    • volume - how loud or quiet your voice is.
    • tempo - how quickly or slowly you speak.

    How do you describe 'tone'?

    'Tone' refers to the different qualities of a sound (or piece of text) and what meaning, atmosphere, or feeling they evoke.

    How do you identify tones in a text?

    To identify the tone in a text, you can look at:

    • what action or conversation is occurring (is it scary, threatening, optimistic, formal, humorous etc)
    • what language is used (does it convey a certain emotion? urgency? relaxed atmosphere?)
    • the descriptive language used in the text (adjectives and adverbs can tell you a lot about the tone that is intended by the author)
    • punctuation and capitalisaiton (words that are all capitalised such as 'HELP' or 'QUICK' convey a certain tone, and evocative punctuation such as exclamation marks and question marks can also tell the reader how a piece of text is meant to be interpreted)

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of these descriptions relates to 'tone'?

    Which of these qualities relates to tone in terms of sound?

    Shouting or raising your voice is an example of:

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