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
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
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.
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.
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.