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DIDLS: The Key to TONE

Diction - the connotation of the word choice

What words does the author choose? Consider his/her word choice compared to another. Why did the author choose that particular word? What are the connotations of that word choice?

Images - vivid appeals to understanding through the senses - concrete language

What images does the author use? What does he/she focus on in a sensory (sight, touch, taste, smell, etc.) way? The kinds of images the author puts in or leaves out reflect his/her style? Are they vibrant? Prominent? Plain? NOTE: Images differ from detail in the degree to which they appeal to the senses.

Details - facts that are included or those that are omitted

What details are does the author choose to include? What do they imply? What does the author choose to exclude? What are the connotations of their choice of details? PLEASE NOTE: Details are facts or fact-lets. They differ from images in that they don't have a strong sensory appeal.

Language - the overall use of language, such as formal, clinical, jargon

What is the overall impression of the language the author uses? Does it reflect education? A particular profession? Intelligence? Is it plain? Ornate? Simple? Clear? Figurative? Poetic? Make sure you don't skip this step.

Sentence Structure - how structure affects the reader's attitude

What are the sentences like? Are they simple with one or two clauses? Do they have multiple phrases? Are they choppy? Flowing? Sinuous like a snake? Is there antithesis, chiasmus, parallel construction? What emotional impression do they leave? If we are talking about poetry, what is the meter? Is there a rhyme scheme?


Laugh: guffaw, chuckle, titter, giggle, cackle, snicker, roar

Self-confident: proud, conceited, egotistical, stuck-up, haughty, smug, condescending

House: home, hut, shack, mansion, cabin, home, residence

Old: mature, experienced, antique, relic, senior, ancient

Fat: obese, plump, corpulent, portly, porky, burly, husky, full-figured


The use of vivid descriptions or figures of speech that appeal to sensory experiences helps to create the author's tone.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun. (restrained)

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king. (somber, candid)

He clasps the crag with crooked hands. (dramatic)

Love sets you going like a fat gold watch. (fanciful)

Smiling, the boy fell dead. (shocking)


Details are most commonly the facts given by the author or speaker as support for the attitude or tone.

The speaker's perspective shapes what details are given and which are not.


Like word choice, the language of a passage has control over tone.

Consider language to be the entire body of words used in a text, not simply isolated bits of diction.

For example, an invitation to a wedding might use formal language, while a biology text would use scientific and clinical language.

•  When I told Dad that I had goofed the exam, he blew his top. (slang)

•  I had him on the ropes in the fourth and if one of my short rights had connected, he'd have gone down for the count. (jargon)

•  A close examination and correlation of the most reliable current economic indexes justifies the conclusion that the next year will witness a continuation of the present, upward market trend. (turgid, pedantic)


How a sentence is constructed affects what the audience understands.

Parallel syntax (similarly styled phrases and sentences) creates interconnected emotions, feelings and ideas.

Short sentences are punchy and intense. Long sentences are distancing, reflective and more abstract.

Loose sentences point at the end. Periodic sentences point at the beginning, followed by modifiers and phrases.

The inverted order of an interrogative sentence cues the reader to a question and creates tension between speaker and listener.

Short sentences are often emphatic, passionate or flippant, whereas longer sentences suggest greater thought.

Sentence structure affects tone.


Good authors are rarely monotone. A speaker's attitude can shift on a topic, or an author might have one attitude toward the audience and another toward the subject. The following are some clues to watch for shifts in tone:

• key words (but, yet, nevertheless, however, although)

• punctuation (dashes, periods, colons)

• paragraph divisions

• changes in sentence length

• sharp contrasts in diction


Tone is defined as the writer's or speaker's attitude toward the subject and the audience. Understanding tone in prose and poetry can be challenging because the reader doesn't have voice inflection to obscure or to carry meaning. Thus, an appreciation of word choice, details, imagery, and language all contribute to the understanding of tone. To misinterpret tone is to misinterpret meaning.

A list of tone words is one practical method of providing a basic "tone vocabulary." An enriched vocabulary enables students to use more specific and subtle descriptions of an attitude they discover in a text. Here is a short list of simple but helpful "tone words":

Angry Sad Sentimental Afraid
Sharp Cold Fanciful Detached
Upset Urgent Complimentary Contemptuous
Silly Joking Condescending Happy
Boring Poignant Sympathetic Confused
Apologetic Hollow Childish Humorous
Joyful Peaceful Horrific Allusive
Mocking Sarcastic Sweet Objective
Nostalgic Vexed Vibrant Zealous
Tired Frivolous Irrelevant Bitter
Audacious Benevolent Dreamy Shocking
Seductive Restrained Somber Candid
Proud Giddy Pitiful Dramatic
Provocative Didactic Lugubrious Sentimental

Students need to use dictionaries for definitions of the tone words listed above. Students need explicit dictionary meanings to establish subtle differences between tone words such as emotional , sentimental , and lugubrious , so that they can accurately comment on a work that appeals to the emotions, emphasizes emotion over reason, or becomes emotional to the point of being laughable. Keeping a list of precise tone words, and adding to it, sharpens students' articulation in stating tone.

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