Tone and register in linguistics

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Tone and register in linguistics

  1. 1. In Writing, Tone Is the Author’s Attitude In written composition, tone is often defined as what the author (rather than the reader) feels about the subject. (What the reader feels about it, by contrast, is referred to as the mood.) Tone is also sometimes confused with voice, which can be explained as the author’s personality expressed in writing. Tone is established when the author answers a few basic questions about the purpose of the writing: Why am I writing this? Who am I writing it to? What do I want the readers to learn, understand, or think about? Tone depends on these and other questions. In expository, or informative, writing, tone should be clear and concise, confident but courteous. The writing level should be sophisticated but not pretentious, based on the reader’s familiarity with or expertise in the topic, and should carry an undertone of cordiality, respect, and, especially in business writing, an engagement in cooperation and mutual benefit. Expository writing shares with journalistic writing an emphasis on details in order of priority, so writers should not only organize their compositions to reflect what they believe is most important for readers to know but also use phrasing and formatting that cues readers about the most pertinent information — words like first, primary, major, and “most important,” and special type like italics or boldface, but employ both techniques with restraint. In creative writing, tone is more subjective, but it also requires focus on communication. The genre often determines the tone — thrillers use tight, lean phrasing, romances (hearty adventures as well as adventures of the heart) tend to be more effusive and expressive, comedies more buoyant, and so on. Some writing guides suggest that if you’re unsure about what tone to adopt for fiction, you visualize the book as a film — doesn’t everybody do that anyway these days? — and imagine what emotions or feelings its musical soundtrack would convey. Tone is delivered in the form of syntax and usage, in imagery and symbolism, allusion and metaphor, and other literary tools and techniques, but that shouldn’t imply that developing tone is a technical enterprise that involves a checklist. Just as with mastering your writing voice (while being flexible enough to adapt it to a particular project), adopting a certain tone depends on these and many other qualitative factors. Tone can also be compared to differing attitudes of human behavior — the difference, for instance, in how you behave at work, at church, at a party, and so on. Tone and voice are two features of writing that go hand in hand to create the style for a piece of writing. The attitude and the personality — two other ways to describe these qualities — could also be said to blend into a flavor of writing. Whatever analogy you use, make a conscious decision about tone based on the purpose, the audience, and the desired outcome of your work.
  2. 2. Linguistic Register and Code Switching by Mark Nichol “Linguistic register” refers to the concept of adapting one’s use of language to conform to standards or traditions in a given professional or social situation, and writers and editors will benefit from recognizing the distinction between registers. The five general categories follow: Intimate register is the highly informal language used among family members and close friends, and may include private vocabulary known only to two people or a small group, as well as nonverbal cues exclusive to the pair or group. Casual register is the informal language of a broader but still well-defined social group, and includes slang, elliptical and elided sentences, and frequent interruption. Consultative register is moderately formal language that marks a mentor-protege or expert-novice relationship, such as that between a doctor and a patient or a teacher and a student. Formal register is language spoken between strangers or in a technical context. Frozen register is ritualistic or traditional, as in religious ceremonies or legal proceedings. Various registers, therefore, are distinguished by not only by sophistication of vocabulary but also by complexity and regularity of grammar and syntax. It is vital to note, however, that register is associated not with the speaker or writer but with the professional or social environment; a person can conceivably, within a given day, communicate in each of the five linguistic registers in assorted interpersonal interactions. A related term is diatype, which means “language distinguished by the professional or social purpose,” and is often distinct from dialect, which means “language spoken by an individual or a group,” though a particular form of language may qualify for both definitions. The three factors in diatype are field, or subject matter; mode, or the form of communication (written, spoken, and so on); and tenor, or the participants and their professional or social relationships. Mode is further defined by the degree of preparation — whether the communication is improvised or prepared, or somewhere in between — and by the rhetorical purpose, including expository, narrative, or persuasive. Another term relevant to linguistic register is code-switching, which varies in meaning but for our purposes refers to flexibility in adhering to a register within or between communications. One of the most noticeable examples of code-switching in U.S. urban areas is the divergent use by black people of standard American English and Black English (appropriately, known in a more formal register as African American Vernacular English). The difference between speech among adolescents and their conversations with parents and other authority figures is also code-switching. Writers and editors must be at least subconsciously aware of linguistic register. In fiction, a given character may necessarily shift among several, if not all, degrees in a given story, and the character’s fidelity to the appropriate register in each situation will in part determine the writer’s success.
  3. 3. Nonfiction also relies on attention to linguistic register, in that a topic for one article or essay may require consultative register, while another may call for casual or formal register — and the writer must sometimes consider whether code-switching within one piece is an appropriate strategy. (You get my drift?) This discussion does not suggest that writers and editors must dispassionately analyze writing for technical adherence to linguistic register in order to succeed. But wordsmiths who recognize the distinctions will be more successful in facilitating communication in both informational and creative prose.

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