When parents say "Watch your tone," they are referring to the attitude projected through the intonation of the child's voice as well as the words spoken. Tone in writing can have a similar bite, or, alternatively, can be laced with humor and gaiety. Tone is the author's attitude that is conveyed toward a topic, character or general situation. Tones in literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, are similar to the tones used in verbal language. You can determine the tone of a paragraph by reflecting on the audience, analyzing the syntax and diction, and using the mood to find the author's tone.
Who Is the Audience?
The first way to identify the author's tone is to identify the audience of a paragraph. Often, the audience of a paragraph is the same as the audience of the entire piece of writing. One way to determine the audience of text is to analyze the author's style. Is it formal or informal? A formal style avoids cliches, idioms, slang and contractions while an informal style may embrace these. When determining the audience, think about who may be on the other end reading. Would this writing be found in a scholarly journal or a master's thesis? Or, would it be found on a blog? Determining the audience is key to determining the tone.
Analyze the Author's Diction
Next step to digging through the author's tone is breaking down the author's diction, or word choice. While the formality of a text is part of the author's diction, it is not all of it. Diction includes the use of figurative language, adverbs and adjectives. Does the author use metaphors and similes? Also, consider the intensity of the words an author uses. Think of the words sad, gloomy, melancholy and morose. Each word offers a varying degree of sadness. An author's tone seeps through her word choice.
Survey the Syntax
Syntax put simply is the sentence structures an author intentionally utilizes. To investigate the sentence structure, begin with the punctuation. If the author uses frequent exclamation points, it may be that he is portraying anger or frustration, or, depending on the diction, excitement or enthusiasm. On the other hand, a list of questions may establish that an author feels uncertainty about a situation or topic. Syntax is still more than just the punctuation. Does the author use short, choppy sentences, or lengthy sentences laden with lyrical language? Each of these structures lends a different tone to the text.
Work Backward: Mood to Tone
Finally, one easy way to determine the author's tone is to work backward from the very feelings the author is making you feel. Do not get confused: Tone and mood are not the same. The mood is the feeling that the author's tone provokes in the reader. As you are reading a text, do you feel like laughing? If so, you could describe the author's tone as humorous, or even sarcastic if irony is being employed. Perhaps you feel persuaded to make a change or do something for others. In this case, the author's tone could be considered persuasive or motivating.