Language & Tone

Language and tone can highlight an author’s point of view.  Language and tone also influence the quality and logic of an argument. As a reader, you can see if a writer is impartial or biased by evaluating the text’s language and tone.

Language refers to word choice and emphasis as well as how words are put together and punctuated in sentences. Tone refers to how the author uses words to convey an attitude. There are a number of questions that you can ask when analyzing an author’s use of language and tone in order to determine how they contribute to the author’s message. For example:

  • Is the language formal or informal?  Impersonal or personal?
  • Does the language show any bias in terms of word choice or tone?
  • Is the language appropriate for the intended audience and purpose?
  • Is the language overly emotional?  Overly complicated? Overly simple?
  • Are sentences clear and direct, or lengthy and complicated in syntax?
  • What does punctuation contribute, if anything, to the text’s tone?

Compare the language and tone in the two sample paragraphs below.  As a reader, what do you infer about the author’s point of view?  How would you characterize the tone of each sample?  What do you think about the quality and logic of each selection?

Many species of plants and animals are disappearing right before our eyes! If we don’t act really fast, it might be too late to save them. Human activities, including pollution, deforestation, hunting, and overpopulation, are devastating the natural environment.  Without our help, many species will not survive long enough for our children to see them in the wild.  Take the tiger, who has already been “taken” to a great extent. Today, tigers occupy just 7 percent of their historical range, and many local populations are already extinct.  Hunted for their beautiful pelt and other body parts, the tiger population has plummeted from one hundred thousand in 1920 to just a few thousand.  Contact your local wildlife conservation society today to find out how you can stop this terrible destruction.
Many species of plants and animals are diminishing because of human activities. For example, tigers today occupy just seven percent of their historical range; the tiger population has decreased from one hundred thousand in 1920 to just a few thousand.  Many local populations of tigers are already extinct.  There are many causes for decreased species of plants and animals—pollution, deforestation, hunting, and overpopulation.  Because the natural environment is so intertwined, we need to consider how to stem some of these causes in order to maintain a balance of nature.  Local as well as national wildlife conservation societies offer strategies for individuals and groups to facilitate awareness and action.

In the first sample, the author comes across as effusive.  The text urges the reader that action has to happen quickly.  The author’s language, punctuation, and word choice all help elicit this reaction. In contrast, the author comes across more calmly and rationally in the second sample.  The tone is more muted than in the first sample, and the text suggests that readers need to raise their awareness in addition to immediate action—the call to action is not immediate. The ideas are similar in both sample paragraphs, but you can see the different effects achieved by manipulating language and tone.

There are many, many possible tones, including the following:

formal Informal
serious funny
sarcastic sincere
optimistic pessimistic
naive cynical
aggressive calm
and more…

The following video discusses how tone contributes to the meaning of a text.

try it

Based on your reading of the first three paragraphs of “Forget Shorter Showers” by Derrick Jensen, answer the following questions about language and tone (answers will vary).


How does the author come across in the first three paragraphs, based on his language and tone?


What descriptive words would you use to characterize the author’s tone?


You previously identified the author’s main idea and purpose. If the author had used different language and tone to introduce his ideas in the first three paragraphs, what do you think the effect on a reader would be? Another way to consider this is to ask why he chose the tone he chose.