A drawing of two masks crying and one is indicating comedy and humor. One is laughing.

Source: Comedy and tragedy masks, Scott Freiheit, Wikimedia

When it comes to tone, most of us think we understand it pretty well. For instance, you know what kind of tone your teacher uses when he or she is impatient or disappointed. You also understand the tone your friends use when you’re having a casual conversation. Finding the tone as you read, however, is sometimes more challenging because you can’t hear what is being said. You can see the words as you are reading, but you can’t actually hear the writer speaking the words.

Whether you are reading a book, magazine, blog, or short story, detecting the author’s tone in the writing is important. Unconsciously you are probably already doing this without knowing it. Recognizing tone helps you better understand and enjoy what you read, but In order to figure out the writer’s tone, you need to look closely at the diction, denotation, and connotation of certain words.

Let’s start with tone and diction. Tone is the author’s attitude toward the writing. Tone is largely determined by diction or the words that an author chooses. Good writers carefully choose words that will help you “hear” the attitude in the writing. When you read, it’s important to pick out the author’s attitude about the topic.

Tone in a piece of writing can be formal or informal, positive or negative, serious or humorous, and many other combinations. In addition to figuring out the tone, a writer may expect you to understand denotative or literal meanings of words and their connotative or implied meanings. In this lesson, you’ll see how a writer’s tone, diction, denotation, and connotation work together to create meaning for you as a reader.

Because you can’t physically hear the writer’s voice, you must read closely to discover the tone in a piece of writing. This requires you to look carefully at the writer’s word choices or diction. Again, writers choose their words carefully because even though they're communicating the same amount of information as they might when speaking, they're doing so with fewer tools.