Tone – how to understand it

free pages from our English Language software program

Tone – definition

tone To the linguist [or speech therapist] ‘tone’ means the quality of sound produced by the voice in uttering words.

redbtn In a general sense, ‘tone’ is the attitude of the speaker or writer as revealed in the choice of vocabulary or the
intonation of speech.

redbtn This attitude might be immediately apparent — in tone of voice, for instance.

redbtn It might on the other hand be a complex and subtle manner which takes time to establish — in an extended piece of writing, for instance.


redbtn Written or spoken communication might be described as having a tone which is, for instance:

ironic serious flippant
threatening light-hearted pessimistic


redbtn Tone is used to convey an attitude. This may be done consciously or unconsciously.

redbtn It could be said that there is no such thing as a text or verbal utterance without a tone.

redbtn In most cases, tone is either taken for granted, or perceived unconsciously.

redbtn NB! Tone is sometimes difficult to describe and analyse. It’s a subtle and complex matter.

redbtn Tone, taken at its most literal, is a feature of non-verbal communication. It is the physical level at which the sound of the human voice is transmitted.

redbtn Linguists and speech therapists chart intonation patterns by a system of marks on the page to suggest the rising and falling of the voice tone.

redbtn Intonation is the term by which we refer to the patterns of sound which are evident in every utterance. We sometimes use the term ‘monotone’ to imply an absence of intonation. This usually suggests some negative state of mind on the part of the speaker.

redbtn Every language has its standard set of intonation patterns. These have to be learnt by the non-native speaker as an essential constituent of the transmission of meaning.

redbtn The intonation patterns of a language are the first things a child learns in its progress as a speaker. They are the first elements a child selects from the body of ‘comprehensible imput’ which is necessary to trigger the acquisition process.

redbtn Interestingly, intonation is a difficult hurdle for the second-language learner. It seems that the intonation of one’s own native language becomes deeply internalised, and the ability to hear the intonation of a second language is not as sharp as it is in a young child.

redbtn We can, perhaps, appreciate these difficulties if we take the single word ‘hello’ and consider the variations possible in expressing it to imply an attitude. [This isn’t easy to reproduce on screen, but bear with us.]

‘Hello, hello, hello.’ stereotype policeman
‘Hello?’ ‘Is anyone there?’
‘Hello!’ ‘At last I’ve found it!’
‘Hello!’ ‘Here we go again!’
‘Hello!’ ‘Fancy meeting you.’
and of course…
‘Hello!’ Greeting a friend

redbtn Even a non-verbal utterance such as a cough or a clearing of the throat can be eloquent by means of its tone. An example of this is the cough which says ‘Be careful! People are listening in to what you’re saying’. A slightly different cough acts as a warning not to go any further with an action or an utterance.

redbtn Intonation as part of literary writing is conveyed often by narrative description as in:

‘Oh Jeremy!’ she exclaimed in a shocked tone.

‘Jeremy!’ she screamed, as she saw him leap from the parapet.

redbtn As practised readers, we infer the tone of literary dialogue without the explicit narrative description used in the first example given above. We hear the delivery in our mind’s ‘ear’ as clearly as we hear it in reality when taking part in a dialogue ourselves.

redbtn Tone is perhaps applied more widely in an almost metaphoric sense to convey a whole attitude. For instance we might receive a letter from someone expressing the sentiment that they had trusted us, but felt let down by something we had done. The letter might have an ironic tone, or an angry tone, or an indignant tone.

redbtn Tone in this sense is conveyed by an amalgam of choice of vocabulary and syntax on the part of the writer. For the reader, this selection creates an imaginary audible impression, as the tone is heard in the mind’s ear.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

English language links

Red button English Language – free guidance notes

Red button English Language 3.0

Red button Improve your Writing Skills

  • English Language 3.0 (.html)English Language 3.0

    English Language 3.0 tells you everything you need to know about English — language rules, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Improve your written style. Get rid of mistakes. Quiz questions and exercises help you to check your understanding. Learn how language works. Suitable for all levels – from beginners to advanced. Latest version allows you to […]

    Order English Language 3.0 English Language 3.0 @ £4.95

Buy from Amazon US     Buy from Amazon UK

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

If you found this article interesting you might want to Tell-A-Friend.

Tell A Friend
  1. (required)
  2. (valid email required)
  3. (required)
  4. (valid email required)

cforms contact form by delicious:days

Leave a Reply


Powered by eShop v.6