A photograph of the Tone knob on an electric guitar

Source: Tone, .solar, Flickr

Tone is a word whose meaning you probably already know. After all, we hear people’s tone when they speak, and it tells us how they feel about something. You might have heard your mother say, ”Don’t use that tone of voice with me!“ Tone is easy to hear in spoken language, but did you know that what you read can also convey tone?

When writers compose, they choose specific words to create tone so that readers will understand how they feel about their subjects. Carefully chosen words amount to diction. If a writer is precise with diction, a reader is more likely to get the writer’s exact meaning. Take a look at the words that help create tone in the excerpt below from “Low Wages, Strong Backs” by Tom Meagher and Suzanne Travers.

A photograph of an industrial assembly line that shows people in protective garments handling small boxes

Source: 2011-11-29 Canon Beach (157), cromely, Flickr

Today I face the clock. Standing on an assembly line in a warehouse in Mount Olive, I wear safety goggles and stack boxes full of Euphoria perfume on a wooden pallet as they come off the conveyor belt. Women in white lab coats scurry around downstairs, pulling bottles randomly off the line to test them in the quality assurance room.

Folding or stacking or filling these boxes, I am a cog in the production wheel, repeating motions that get my bit of the work done. Yesterday, it was open box, pull out bag, pull box from bag, pivot. Today it’s fold, stack, slide. Everybody is interchangeable, especially temps like me.

Tom Meagher spent a month working as a day laborer in Passaic County in New Jersey. His diction (choice of words) in the second paragraph shows the reader how he feels about his job. Words and phrases like “cog in the production wheel,” “repeating motions,” “bit of work,” and “interchangeable” show that he feels unimportant and stuck in a monotonous job.

Writers will also sometimes use irony to help produce their desired tone. Irony is a literary technique used to create meaning that seems to contradict the literal meaning or events. For example, Annie Dillard employs irony in this passage from her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

A photograph of a running creek in the woods

Source: West-virginia-fall-foliage-creek-waterfalls - West Virginia -
ForestWander, ForestWander, Wikimedia

Today I sit on the dry grass at the end of the island by the slower side of the creek. I’m drawn to this spot. I come to it as an oracle; I return to it as a man years later will seek out the battlefield where he lost a leg or an arm.

Dillard’s last sentence might be classified as ironic. Why would a man who had lost a limb in battle want to revisit the site? It seems more likely that he would avoid such a place. Her ironic statement helps set the tone of mystery and wonder.

As you read for meaning, closely read and examine the words chosen by the writer and any irony that may be present in the passage so that you can correctly discern the writer’s meaning. Close reading is the careful, sustained reading of a text. One strategy to help you read closely is to ask yourself questions such as the following:

Writers like Dillard carefully choose their words to add meaning for a reader. In this lesson, you will practice reading closely so that you can identify the choices that help create tone, diction, and irony. If you haven’t worked through the lessons “Diction and Tone” and “Irony, Paradox, and Sarcasm,” you may want to do so before continuing with this practice lesson.