Meaning Tone Writing Assignment

     Picture this scenario:

     Typical middle schooler. At home after school. 

     Cut to the harried mother, who has not only been to work and back, but has also picked up, dropped off, cooked dinner, and cleaned've got the picture.

     Mother, calmly, to middle school student: I've asked you twice already to unload the dishwasher.

     Middle schooler in a smarmy voice: IsaidIwill...when I'mfinished.

     Mother slowly looks up at middle schooler. If smoke were capable of coming out of one's ears, she would look like the smokestack at a plastics factory: Don't. Speak. To me. With that tone.

     Middle schooler, sensing danger, plays dumb, shrugs innocently, attempts to sound sweet: What? I didn't do anything. I said I'll help you, that's all. I'll do it now.

      Eruption narrowly averted.

     This is likely the only connection that my students can make to "tone." 

     They know that sometimes they get in trouble for it.

Teaching Tone      
      So when I teach it, I always replay this scene for them, and I love to play the mother and the child in the little act.  Then I give them a written version of the same scenario and ask them to use their inference skills to determine the tone. They also have to underline details that support their idea. They quickly figure out the word choices and short, choppy sentences develop tension. And since the reader feels the tension,  the tone must be helping to establish the mood.     

        Then comes the task of teaching tone, and encouraging students to develop tone in their own narratives. Language choices are important, of course, but there's more to it. So I give them a little challenge and I write this sentence on the board:

       Then I ask students how many meanings can be derived from the sentence, written exactly as it is. What do you think?  Students all have the same answer: one.


      I underline the first word and ask a student to read it with emphasis. Try it.

      What does the sentence mean now? Right. The implication is that someone else said "you" stole my red hat.

      Try it again. This time, erase the underline and run the marker over the word "say" so that it appears boldface.

       Interesting, right? The kids catch on right away that the speaker didn't accuse by speaking, but may have written the accusation in a text or may have implied the accusation.
        By now you really have their attention! Go through each and every word the same way. The kids love it and can't wait to participate by saying, "With the emphasis on stole the speaker is saying the person did something else with the hat!" Or with the emphasis on red "The speaker is saying it was a different color hat!"

        It's great fun. And when we finish, we clearly have eight different meanings. This is tone.

Writing with Tone in Mind 
        Next, we have to figure out how to establish tone in our own writing. The first ways, of course, include our sentence structure and word choices. But now the kids realize that the underlining, boldface, and quotation marks helped them understand meaning and tone.

        So it must be....punctuation!

        Mission accomplished :)

       Now if I could only get my son to empty the dishwasher.

     If you would like more practice on setting, tone, and mood, check out these ready-to-use resources:

Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady!  How many times have we heard that expression in our daily lives?

We often consider the tone that we’re using when we speak to others, but we sometimes forget that our tone—our attitude towards the topic and/or reader—can also be pretty obvious when we write.

To understand the effect that tone can have on your writing, consider what might happen if we attempted to convey the same piece of information using these types of tone:









For Example: In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Michigan could indeed use racial quotas as part of the law school admissions process.

Considering the previous eight examples of tone, see if you can identify the tone being used in each of the similar sentences below:

  1. Good luck trying to get into U of M’s law school if you’re not a minority in this country!
  2. Though the quota system at U of M may deter some white male applicants, it’s important to remember that race is only one factor in the lengthy admissions process.
  3. The university admissions staff appears to be unaware that our forefathers fought and died for equality within this nation—such deserved equality is not possible within the university’s prestigious law school.

How does tone relate to “audience awareness”?

One of the most important factors in determining the appropriate tone that you should use in your paper is an understanding of your audience.

To gain an understanding of your audience's expectations, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is your audience familiar with the text/topic?
  • Are they educated?
  • What is their background?  (Where are they from?  What is their political affiliation?  What do they do for a living?)
  • How old are they?
  • Do they agree or disagree with your stance on the issue?

All of these factors influence how your audience will interpret the words on the page; therefore, they should influence your tone as you write them. 

Remember!  Just as you might speak differently in front of the elderly than you might speak in front of your peers, you may have to adjust your tone and possibly the type of information you provide based on the type of audience you expect to read your essay. 

If you’re not sure who your audience might be, be sure to check with your instructor!

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