This section ought to be read in conjunction with the section on Writing with a Sense of Purpose, as tone and purpose are very much related: one's tone is defined by why one is writing and vice versa.

Your behavior while attending church is different from your behavior while hanging out in the back yard with friends, or at least we hope it is. And part of that difference is the difference in language, a difference not just in the words we use but in what we call tone. We also recall being told, when we were very young, not to "use that tone of voice with me, Mister (or Missy, as the case may be)!" Just as the pitch and volume of one's voice carry a difference in tone from street to church, the choice of words and the way we put our sentences together convey a sense of tone in our writing. The tone, in turn, conveys our attitude toward our audience and our subject matter. Are we being frivolous or serious, casual or formal, sweet or stuffy? The choice of a single word can change the tone of a paragraph, even an entire essay. In the first sentence of this paragraph, for example, the phrasal verb "hanging out" is considerably more casual than others we might have chosen: gathering, congregating, assembling.


One difficulty in writing for a course is that it's hard to think of the reader of our essays as an audience. Our instructor might, in fact, be our sole reader, somebody who will pack a pile of papers into a briefcase or backpack and take them home to read on the kitchen table, correcting pen in hand. (Or nowadays, he or she may read them online or take home a stack of floppy discs and read the papers on a computer monitor.) In fact, that person has to read those essays, whether they're good or bad; he or she is even paid to do so.

This is a very limited audience, indeed, and if we aim our essay at that one individual, we have severely limited its appeal. We would be much better off if we could conceive of our essays as being aimed toward a community of readers, the readership, say, of a small-town or neighborhood newspaper. These readers are interested in what we have to say — curious, in fact — but they're easily distracted; they expect — demand, even — something that is fresh, honest, imaginative, energetic, without being too zany or offbeat. We don't know exactly who is going to pick up this newspaper, so we need to be on our best behavior; our tone must aim toward being friendly and helpful without being overly casual (and never slangy); if we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we've hit it just right.

light, humorous, comicserious, grave, decorous
personal, subjectiveobjective, impersonal
casual, offhandedimpassioned
"loose," rambunctiousreasoned, reasonable
zany, experimentalcontrolled, reserved
plainspoken, simpleornate, elaborate


One measure of the formality of our language is our use of contractions. The paragraph just before this one has five verb contractions: it's (twice), they're, don't, and we've. We use contractions all the time in casual conversation, of course, and using contractions in our text will convey an informal quality. To elevate the style, eliminate the contractions and write out the verbs: "if we can maintain this tone of slight formality without being stuffy, we have hit it just right." It is a very easy matter to do a search for apostrophes in our text, and it is a very useful exercise, also. First, we can check for any possessives we may have formed incorrectly, but then we can also check for contractions. Remember, there is nothing inherently wrong with contracted verbs; however, they are one hallmark of informality, and your instructor may object to their use. It would be wise to know how your instructor feels about contractions and a looser, informal style before you experiment with their use — at least in a paper that you're writing for a grade.

A pleasant informality may be void of elevated language, but it is not an excuse for imprecision or wordiness. Read the section on writing Concise Sentences and review the various means of pruning unnecessary words and clichés.

Here is a paragraph from Mother Jones Magazine from an article which calls upon us to stop using antibiotics haphazardly. Where would you place this paragraph on a continuum of formality to informality, and why?

Media reports have likely made you aware of this problem, but they have neglected the implications. Your brother catches a cold that turns into a sinus infection. His doctor treats him with antibiotics, but the bacteria are resistant to all of them. The infection enters his bloodstream — a condition known as septicemia — and a few days later, your brother dies. (Septicemia is what killed Muppets creator Jim Henson several years ago.) Or instead of a cold, he has an infected cut that won't heal, or any other common bacterial disease, such as an ear or prostate infection.

Michael Castleman, "Cold Comfort."
March/April 1998.

And here is a paragraph from Atlantic Monthly from an article declaring that the cultural assumptions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment are current at the end of the millennium. Although you have only four sentences to go on, can you say how this paragraph differs from the paragraph above? Does this difference say something about the audiences of Atlantic Monthly and Mother Jones, respectively? Do you prefer one style to another? Which one feels more like your style?

Governments everywhere are at a loss regarding the best policy for regulating the dwindling forest reserves of the world. Few ethical guidelines have been established from which agreement might be reached, and those are based on an insufficient knowledge of ecology. Even if adequate scientific knowledge were available, we would have little basis for the long-term valuation of forests. The economics of sustainable yield is still a primitive art, and the psychological benefits of natural ecosystems are almost wholly unexplored.

Edward O. Wilson, "Back from Chaos."
March 1998.

If we tried counting contractions for the entire articles from which these paragraphs are taken, we would discover that there is only one contraction — a shouldn't — in Wilson's article and there are twenty contractions in Castleman's, even though Wilson's article is considerably longer. How do these contractions, or the lack of them, affect your sense of the seriousness of the essays? Visit the web-sites of other well known magazines. (Click HERE for a list of hyperlinks.) Find examples of clearly definable tones that seem consistent throughout an online publication. Test the contraction-count theory and see if it supports your sense of formal versus informal.