Tone and Word Choice

Sometimes you can tell a person's opinion on a certain subject, item, idea, or even another individual — not by what they say, but by how they say it. The words a speaker or writer uses to describe and communicate something to others, their word choice or diction, shows their attitude or tone. Although you may not know it, the way you describe something often tells others additional information about what you think. 

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Tone and Word Choice Tone and Word Choice

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Table of contents

    Many orators, writers, and master communicators have learned to choose their words carefully when communicating an idea to be as effective as possible with their message. Word choice, also known as diction, is important to help communicate the right tone and influence your audience.

    Tone and Word Choice Meaning

    Tone and word choice, or diction, are specific style choices writers use when composing a piece to convey their message effectively.

    The tone is the author's attitude towards the subject or even a character within a novel.

    Word choice, or diction, refers to the author's specific words, imagery, and figurative language to communicate that tone.

    The specific word choices an author employs directly affect and reveal the tone.

    To select the right words, authors must pay close attention to both the denotation and connotation of words.

    Denotation is the literal dictionary definition of a word.

    Connotation is the underlying meaning of a word or the emotional charge it carries. Connotation can be negative, positive, or neutral.

    Tone and word choice dictionary definition StudySmarterFig. 1 - To find a word's denotative meaning, you should look in a dictionary.

    Several words can have the same denotative meaning yet carry a different connotative meaning. The connotation of a word can vary from culture to culture and based on life experiences.

    Carefully chosen diction can help writers effectively communicate an idea or perspective and develop a unique voice and style. Word choice enables authentic communication and ensures the tone and message of a piece are aligned or in agreement.Carefully selected diction is crucial when defining the purpose of your writing. It is often appropriate to use detailed descriptions, figurative language, and imagery for narrative, prose, and poetry. However, if you are writing a research paper for biology, your language will be more scientific and the diction more direct and factual.

    Tone and mood are often confused. While they are related, they differ in one central aspect. Tone is the author's attitude toward a subject, idea, situation, or character, while mood is the audience's or reader's emotional response. The tone of a piece can be humorous, while the mood is lighthearted and fun. An author may use description to show their dislike toward a character, while the readers may relate to the character and feel empathy.

    Tone and Word Choice StudySmarterA wide range of emotions can be expressed through word choice.

    The Reason for Careful Word Choice

    Carefully chosen diction is essential in writing. The types of words an author or orator decides to use depends on the purpose of their writing or speech. Carefully selected words, phrases, and descriptions can do a lot.

    Word Choice Matches Your Tone and Purpose

    An informative text, such as a non-fiction research article, will have more professional, content-specific, and technical diction because its purpose is to inform a specific audience. A literary fiction piece will have more detailed language, figures of speech, imagery, and conversational language because one of the primary purposes of fiction is to entice a reader, engage with the audience, and entertain.

    Word Choice Creates the Right Setting

    The language authors use when developing a story to describe characters, time, and place must be in agreement for readers to accept the story as realistic. Authors often use strong descriptive words to help establish the setting, create a mood, and give an authentic feeling to the story.

    Word Choice Develops a Narrative Voice

    A consistent narrative voice helps readers connect to the piece of writing and establishes a trustworthy relationship between reader and narrator.

    Word Choice Creates Better Characters

    Authors and orators often use language specific to a particular region, dialect, and accents to provide a realistic portrayal of a character or relate to the audience. Presenters who are not from Texas may use typical Texas colloquialisms, such as "y'all," which is a combination of the words "you" and "all," to relate to the listeners. A young character in a fiction piece may speak with a lot of slang or foul language to show immaturity. A character's use of specific diction can indicate their gender, level of education, occupation, upbringing, or even social class.

    A colloquialism is an informal word or phrase often used in daily conversation. Some colloquialisms may be specific to a region, culture, or religion.

    Tone and Word Choice Examples

    Some descriptive words have the same denotative meaning but carry different connotations. Using careful word choice, especially when selecting the proper synonym or a descriptive adjective, can create the desired effect and convey the appropriate tone for a piece. Consider the following table of examples.

    Word (with neutral connotation)DenotationSynonym with a positive connotationSynonym with a negative connotation
    Thinhaving little flesh or fatSlenderSkinny
    Overweightabove a weight considered normal or desirable ThickFat
    Strictdemanding that rules are followed or obeyedFirmAustere

    Have you noticed a difference in someone's tone when they call someone slender vs when they call someone skinny?

    Impact of Word Choice on Meaning and Tone

    Selecting words with a positive connotation will reflect a more amiable tone toward the subject, while words with a negative connotation will convey a negative attitude toward a subject. Words with a neutral connotation are best used when an author does not want to reveal their attitude or, in instances, such as a scientific paper, where only the facts are important.

    Difference Between Tone and Word Choice

    Word choice and tone are related. Word choice refers to the language specifically chosen by the author or orator to help convey their attitude regarding a notion, story, or setting. Word choice shapes the tone. On the other hand, the desired tone an author seeks dictates the words they use. If the author wants to establish a worried tone, some key diction and phrases within the piece might be words like "tentatively," "shaking," "stressed," "nervous," "sweaty," "eyes darting," and "looking over his shoulder." To portray a more optimistic tone, an author might select words like "eagerly," "excitedly," "hopeful," "reassuring," and "anticipated." Keyword choice is the foundation that builds a consistent tone.

    Tone and word choice StudySmarter Fig. 3 - What is the tone of this image? A worried man sits and thinks, and the worried tone should be reflected in the word choice.

    The Four Components of Tone

    Whether an article is a non-fiction piece, a fictive story, a poem, or an informative article, the tone the writer uses helps audience members have the appropriate reaction to the information by creating the mood. There are four basic components of tone, and diction dictates the balance of emotions. Authors aim to maintain the same tone throughout a piece to convey a consistent message. The four components of tone range from:

    1. Funny to serious
    2. Casual to formal
    3. Irreverent to respectful
    4. Enthusiastic to matter-of-fact (direct)

    Writers choose the voice they want to deliver and then focus on specific word choices to maintain their tone. Pieces that move too often between distinct tones can be hard for readers to follow and cause confusion.

    Types of Tones

    The tone in writing indicates a particular attitude. Here are some types of tones with examples from the literature and speeches.

    The diction that helps to convey the tone is highlighted.

    When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick—one never does when a shot goes home—but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralyzed him without knocking him down.1

    In this excerpt from Orwell's essay, "Shooting an Elephant," the gruesome tone is communicated through Orwell's descriptive word choice. The words "terrible," "suddenly stricken," and "paralyzed" describe the horrific reaction the elephant has when the first bullet hits.

    Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people's azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people's chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker's Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions.2

    In this excerpt from Chapter 1 of To Kill a Mockingbird, descriptive words help to create a foreboding tone. Words like "morbid," "mutilated," "terrorized," and "malevolent phantom" reveal Scout's sense of fear and apprehension.

    Hope" is the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul -And sings the tune without the words -And never stops - at all -And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -And sore must be the storm -That could abash the little BirdThat kept so many warm -I've heard it in the chillest land -And on the strangest Sea -Yet - never - in Extremity,It asked a crumb - of me.3

    In this poem by Emily Dickinson, the cheerful tone is communicated through the words "perches," "sings," and "sweetest."

    Tone and Word Choice - Key Takeaways

    • Word choice refers to the specific language, words, phrases, descriptions, and figures of speech authors choose to create a desired effect.
    • Tone is the author's attitude toward a subject as conveyed by their word choice in a given piece.
    • Denotation is the dictionary definition of a word and connotation is the underlying meaning of a word and its emotional charge.
    • Connotation is the underlying meaning of a word or the emotional charge it carries. Connotation can be negative, positive, or neutral.
    • The four components of tone are, funny to serious, casual to formal, irreverent to respectful, and enthusiastic to matter-of-fact.

    1 George Orwell. "Shooting an Elephant." 1936.

    2 Lee Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. 1960.

    3 Emily Dickinson. '"Hope" is the thing with feathers.' 1891.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Tone and Word Choice

    How are word choice and tone connected?

    Word choice shapes tone and an author's desired tone dictates the words they use. 

    How do figurative language and word choice affect the tone and meaning of a text?

    Figurative language and word choice reveal an author's opinion of a subject and give the reader clues about what they should understand from the underlying meaning of what the author or narrative voice is communicating. 

    How does word choice influence tone?

    Words chosen with negative, positive, or neutral connotations will alter the attitude the author expresses.

    What are word choice examples?

    To portray a more optimistic tone, an author might select words like "eagerly," "excitedly," "hopeful," "reassuring." and "anticipated." Keyword choice is the foundation that builds a consistent tone. 

    What are the four components of tone? 

    The four components of tone are:

    1. funny to serious
    2. casual to formal
    3. irreverent to respectful
    4. enthusiastic to matter-of-fact

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    It can be positive, negative, or neutral.

    It can be specific words, imagery, or figurative language.

    It is the author's attitude toward the subject.


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