Tone Shift

As humans, we learn to detect tonal shifts from infancy. The tone of our mother's voice had a particular meaning to us before we could even understand language. Because the tone of voice carries so much meaning, a shift in tone says a lot to us as well. A mother might shift the tone of her voice, telling us it's time to go to sleep, for example. In much the same way, a shift in tone communicates meaning in the written word.

Tone Shift Tone Shift

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Table of contents

    Tone Shift Definition

    What is the definition of a shift of tone? To understand the significance of a shift of tone, you first need to understand what tone is and how it works.

    Tone is the stylistic means by which a writer conveys their attitude in a piece of writing. This can be in literature or academic and professional writing.

    Think of the shift of tone you would hear in these two interactions between a boss and employee: "I'm so sorry we have to let you go," versus, "You're fired, get out!" Not only is the substance different, but they communicate two different tones. The tone of the first is compassion and disappointment, and the tone of the second is frustration.

    There are nine basic types of tone, under which are nearly limitless specific tones an author can utilize. The basic tones are:

    • Formal

    • Informal

    • Humorous

    • Sad

    • Joyful

    • Horror

    • Optimistic

    • Pessimistic

    • Serious

    You can use more than one tone in a piece of writing. In fact, a tonal shift can create an intriguing effect for the reader.

    A shift in tone, or tonal shift, is a change in the author's style, focus, or language that alters the meaning of a text.

    Shifts in Tone, Tonal Shift Definition, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A tonal shift keeps all other elements the same but changes the tone in a significant way.

    Tone Shift in Writing

    It is easier to distinguish tone and tonal shifts in spoken word than in written word. When someone speaks, part of what is heard is the tone of their voice. The tone of someone's voice communicates many things, including how the speaker feels about the subject, as well as how they feel about the listener.

    Understanding tonal shifts in writing require the reader to make an educated guess about what the author means. An author can communicate tone through literary devices such as:

    • Diction – an author's choice and use of words.

    • Irony – the expression of one's meaning through words that signify the opposite of what is said.

    • Figurative language – the use of language that deviates from the literal meaning (including metaphors, similes, and other literary devices).

    • Perspective – first (I/ we), second (you), and third-person (they, she, he, it) perspectives are ways of describing the point of view of the narrative.

    Irony, for example, relies heavily on tone to convey the author's true meaning.

    A shift in tone always has significance, whether the author intends it or not. More often than not, an author is aware of their tone and chooses to break away from the established tone to create an effect for the reader.

    Effect of Shifts in Tone

    The effect in shifts of tone is often disruptive and very noticeable. Many authors use tonal shifts to their advantage and create a tone shift to guide the reader to a particular emotion or experience.

    Think, for example, of The Lord of the Rings (1954) by J.R.R. Tolkien. We'll discuss the film version, as the visual format is helpful to illustrate the shift in the audience's experience. The film The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) begins with the background story of the ring and the evils that are hunting it. Next, we are taken to the shire, where the tone changes from intense and frightening to happy and peaceful. This tone change is helpful to get the audience to anticipate the dark forces that will eventually pursue the hobbits out of the shire.

    Understanding shifts in tone is important to grasp an author's meaning completely. Reading a text critically requires you to interpret the tone, as well as the significance of any shifts in tone.

    Examples of Shifts in Tone

    A shift of tone can sometimes be subtle. Look for a change in rhythm or vocabulary that changes the way the poem makes you feel. Sometimes, you'll need to combine this tonal shift in feeling with context clues to fully understand what has changed and why.

    Context clues are hints given by the author to help the audience understand the meaning of new or difficult passages. Context clues work closely with tone to provide the reader with information about how to feel while reading a piece of writing.

    Authors use context clues in literature through:

    • punctuation,
    • word choice,
    • and description.

    Punctuation provides context clues by alerting the reader that a speaker (or narrator) is speaking in a particular manner (i.e., excited, angry, etc.). Word choice also offers a clue about the meaning behind the words; words carry unspoken meaning that can influence how a message is received. Description is useful as a context clue when the author tells the audience something that influences the meaning of a situation or passage.

    There are seven ways an author can create a shift in tone in writing. These examples change the meaning of a piece of writing, especially when combined with relevant context clues.

    Shift in Tone Through Setting

    A description of a setting can seamlessly change the tone of a piece of writing. A good setting description can convey how the reader should feel.

    A child dressed in a rain jacket and red galoshes jumps from puddle to puddle in light rain while his mother watches, smiling from the porch.

    The tone of this passage is nostalgic and tenderhearted. The writer describes the scene in such a way that we can sense the peace in the setting. Notice the shift in the continuation of the scene below:

    Suddenly, a clap of thunder startles the boy and the skies open up in a torrential downpour. The puddles quickly grow, and the water rises as he struggles to reach his mother on the porch.

    Now the tone has shifted from peaceful to horror as we anxiously read to see if the boy will reach the safety of his mother.

    Shift in Tone Through Characters

    Characters can change the tone of a story through their behavior and actions. Sometimes just the presence of a character can alter the tone. For example:

    Shifts in Tone, Shift in Tone Example, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Setting is one of seven ways an author can create a shift in tone.

    A couple, Shelly and Matt, sits at a table in candlelight, eating a meal together.

    The tone of this scenario is romantic. We as readers understand that Shelly and Matt are on a date.

    Another man walks into the room. It's the man with which the woman is having an affair, and his name is Theo. The two men meet eyes.

    The romantic tone has shifted to a more tense tone because of the presence of the second man. There were no words spoken, but readers can perceive tension in the scene, knowing that the tone is no longer romantic—but has shifted to suit a different situation.

    Shift in Tone Through Actions

    Like the presence of a particular character, the actions of characters can also cause a tone shift. Let's see what happens if the ruined date scene continues:

    Matt suddenly pushes back his chair from the table with excessive force and stands up, knocking over their wine glasses.

    The tension in the tone intensifies because of the way Matt reacted to the presence of the second man, Theo. Again, no dialogue is necessary in this instance because the reader can sense that the focus is no longer on the romantic couple but is now on the tension between her and the two rival men.

    Shift in Tone Through Dialogue

    Although it isn't necessary for a character to speak to create a shift in tone, dialogue does have a great impact on tone. See how dialogue affects the tone in the last example with the date-gone-wrong:

    Theo looks at Shelly and says, "I see you've met my brother."

    The tone has once again changed. Now the tone is shocking and surprising with this revelation that Shelly was cheating on Matt with his brother. Perhaps this is news to Shelly, the audience, or both.

    Shift in Tone Through Attitude

    Tone communicates the attitude of the author toward certain subjects. Meanwhile, the attitude of the character or speaker can communicate the tonal shifts of the writing.

    "My mom is making dinner tonight."

    This sentence could be a simple statement of fact. Or, if there is something in the context (remember context clues) to indicate that the speaker doesn't like their mom's cooking, then you might read an attitude of dissatisfaction in the statement.

    Shift of Tone Through Irony

    Irony can directly affect tonal shifts. Remember, irony is the expression of one's meaning using words that mean the opposite.

    Imagine a character who says, "I love you, too." This would normally signal a romantic tone. If a character says that same thing right after he has learned he's been betrayed by the person opposite him, the reader would know to read this with an ironic tone.

    Shifts of Tone Through Author's Word Choice

    A single word can sometimes shift the tone of someone's writing. Think of the difference in tone between the two following sentences.

    The man opened the door to the school.


    The freak opened the door to the school.

    All that changed was a single word, but the tone changed from neutral to scary with just that one word. Think also of the significance of changing the word "rain" to "deluge" or "carefully" to "compulsively." These single words change not only the meaning of the sentence they're in but also the tone of the situation they describe.

    Tone Shift in Poetry

    Although poetry can take many forms and shapes, some patterns and trends have emerged that poets intentionally use to shift tone. One such trend is a "volta," which means "turn" in Italian. Volta was originally used in sonnets to express a shift in thought or argument, but it has come to be used more widely in poetry.

    A volta represents a pivotal change in either the format or content of the poem; some ways a poem can express a volta is through a change in subject or speaker, or a shift in tone.

    The poem "A Barred Owl" (2000) by Richard Wilbur contains a shift in tone from one stanza to another:

    The warping night air having brought the boom

    Of an owl's voice into her darkened room,

    We tell the wakened child that all she heard

    Was an odd question from a forest bird,

    Asking of us, if rightly listened to,

    "Who cooks for you?" and then "Who cooks for you?" (6)

    Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,

    Can also thus domesticate a fear,

    And send a small child back to sleep at night

    Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight

    Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw

    Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw. (12)

    The tone of the first stanza is calm and domestic, as indicated by the imagery of a child's room and a parent's assurance that the bird is asking simply, "Who cooks for you?" Then in the second stanza, the tone shifts to a more sinister one as the poem highlights the false sense of calm we create to deal with the harsh realities of our world. We feel this shift with the use of words such as "terrors," "stealthy," "claw," and "raw."

    Every time we see a shift of tone, or tonal shift, there is a meaning behind it. This shift is perhaps a warning, or at the very least, a wake-up call to recognize the vicious reality of nature. This shift gives the poem nuance and makes it intriguing and enjoyable to read.

    Tone Shift - Key Takeaways

    • A shift in tone is a change in the author's style, focus, or language that alters the meaning of a text.
    • A shift in tone always has significance.
    • Tone shifts are often disruptive and very noticeable.
    • Reading a text critically requires you to interpret the tone, as well as the significance of any shifts in tone.
    • There are seven ways you can shift tone in writing. This happens through setting, characters, actions, dialogue, attitude, irony, and word choice.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Tone Shift

    What are tonal shifts?

    A shift in tone is a change in the author’s style, focus, or language that alters the meaning of a text. 

    What are different tones in literature?

    Tones are the different attitudes an author can have about things they’re discussing.

    Some examples of different tones used in literature are:








    How many types of tones are there in English?

    There are hundreds of different tones, but they can be broken down into 9 basic types of tones:

    • Formal

    • Informal

    • Humorous

    • Sad

    • Joyful

    • Horror

    • Optimistic

    • Pessimistic

    • Serious

    How do I identify tone shift?

    Identify a tone shift by looking for a change in rhythm or vocabulary that changes the way you feel as you’re reading.

    How do you shift tone in writing?

    There are seven ways you can shift tone in writing. You can change tone through one of the following:




    Word choice




    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which two basic types of tones are missing from the list:HumorousSadJoyfulHorrorOptimisticPessimisticSerious

    True or false: You can use more than one tone in a piece of writing

    True or false: It is easier to distinguish tone in writing than in verbal conversation

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    Team Tone Shift Teachers

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