There are as many tones in writing as there are human emotions. The differences between these tones are the context, syntax, and diction that authors employ to cultivate personalities and emotions in characters or to appeal to their readers.
I went to the store to get some stuff for dinner later.
I went to the store to acquire the ingredients needed for dinner this evening.
These two sentences have the same meaning, but they use different tones. The first is more informal and casual, while the second is more formal.
Generally, there are three categories of tones in writing: positive, negative, and neutral. Within these categories are varying intensities of emotion that writers may want to evoke. For example, to create a calming tone (positive), a writer may use words such as “quite,” “peaceful,” or “tranquil.” However, to create a playful tone (also positive, but more intense than calm), a writer may use “cheerful,” “spirited,” or “mischievous.”
Below, you’ll find five tones with examples and explanations to help you with your writing.
A formal tone may be used in many contexts, such as business copy, academic writing, email correspondence, or giving a speech. To achieve a formal tone, avoid the following:
● First (“I”, “me”, “my,” “we,” etc.) and second (“you”) person pronouns
● Contractions (e.g., “can’t,” “I’d,” “that’s,”)
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
● Colloquialisms and slang
● Overly simplified sentences
● Abbreviations, acronyms, and non-standard spellings of words
Ultimately, a formal tone aims to be thorough, direct, and respectful. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
The weather report states a 50% chance of rain at 11 pm.
The findings suggest that extreme gradient boosting is more effective than logistic regression.
Here’s an example of a formal business email. Keep in mind that context plays a crucial role in all writing. So, for this context, it’s appropriate to use first and second person pronouns because this is correspondence between two people.
This email is a reminder regarding the business contract we sent you on April 15th, 2022. We have not received a reply from your party since we sent the contract.
Additionally, we agreed to meet on March 17th, 2022, to further review the contract and discuss specificities on what may need to be altered. We planned to discuss what services would be required to fulfill the contract on mutual terms. However, you have not responded to this request either.
Please respond and address both of these issues so the process can move forward.
An informal tone is exactly the opposite of formal. It’s used in everyday language. In writing, it may be used in dialogue between characters, narration, texts, social media posts, or emails between friends and colleagues.
Let’s look at how the earlier formal examples can be written as informal:
The weather app says it’ll rain later tonight.
Our research shows that XGBoost works better than LR.
In these examples, the opposite of our above list to accomplish formal writing is done to create an informal tone, such as using abbreviations and contractions.
Here’s how we can make the formal email informal:
We never heard back from you about that contract we sent a couple weeks ago. We need a response ASAP.
Also, are we still meeting on the 17th to talk about the details and services you want from us? We’ve got to come to an agreement before we can sign the contract.
Sent from my iPhone
The overall language in this email is vastly different from the opening marks (“Hey” vs. “Dear XXX”) to the vocabulary (e.g., “discuss” vs. “talk about” or “we did not receive a response” vs. “we never heard back”) and the sign off (“Regards” vs. “Sent from my iPhone”).
A writer can use an optimistic tone using words like “bright,” “encouraging,” “promising,” or “upbeat.” An optimistic tone may be used in scenes of tragedy or despair by characters who usually look on the bright side.
Let’s look at an example:
“However, on the Fortieth cross-town avenue, we have succeeded in erecting a temporary barrier of high-voltage waves. And I hope that we shall conquer. More than that – I am certain we shall conquer. Because reason must prevail.”
– We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
In this example, we can feel an optimistic tone from the narrator through language such as “we have succeeded,” “hope,” “shall conquer,” and “must prevail.” Even without reading the book, you can sense that some kind of tragedy has occurred, but through the use of “shall” (looking toward the future) and positive vocabulary, the author employs an optimistic tone.
A friendly tone can be used with words like “warm,” “genial,” “affectionate,” or “sweet.” Let’s look at an example of a friendly tone.
“Miu smiled. A nostalgic, intimate smile, like a treasured old possession pulled out of the back of a drawer. Her eyes narrowed in an utterly charming way. She reached out and, with her long, slim fingers, gently mussed Sumire’s already tousled hair. It was such a sudden yet natural gesture that Sumire could only return the smile.”
– Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
From this example, we sense a friendly tone from the author’s choice of words and the general context set. For example, vocabulary such as “smile,” “natural,” and “charming” create a friendly tone. From the context, we sense a friendly mood from the interactions between friends; for example, “gently mussed Sumire’s already tousled hair.”
A serious tone is not joking or playful. It may be conveyed through words like “stern,” “dark,” “sober,” or “grave.” You may find a serious tone in books or materials that cover sensitive or tough topics, such as racial issues, prejudice, or mental health. Overall, a serious tone may be used to emphasize something important or create suspense.
“The average American’s Thanksgiving dinner is likely to increase by about 20%, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual survey – by far the biggest jump recorded in the 37-year history of the report.
The cost for a holiday feast rose to $64.05 for 10 people, up from $53.31 from last year’s average, and a nearly 37% increase in cost from two years ago. The massive jump is perhaps not surprising, given that food inflation is at a four-decade high – but it demonstrates the increasing pressure on Americans’ finances.”
The dominant strategy used in this example (and many news articles) to create a serious tone is the use of figures and comparative language. For example, “increase by about 20%,” “by far the biggest jump recorded in the 37-year history of the report,” and “four-decade high.”This language emphasizes the seriousness of the topic to its readers.
Here’s an example of a serious tone used to create suspense:
“Sarah was laying on the couch when there was a knock at the door. She knew who it was. She also knew that by answering the door, she would have to look them in the eyes and tell the truth. About what she had done. She knew she would lose them forever if she confessed, but she couldn’t live with herself if the truth didn’t come out.
Sarah got up and walked toward the door.”
In this example, the tone becomes serious because the character is at a pivotal moment. Sarah must make a decision that will clearly change the course of the narrative from this point on. Language like “she knew,” “tell the truth,” and “confess” emphasize the seriousness of the situation and the internal conflict the character is having.
An assertive tone can convey ambition, confidence, and boldness. Alternatively, it can also come across as aggressive, pushy, and militant if the writer isn’t careful. An assertive tone is usually used in business and academic writing because these types of writers need to convey a sense of authority on the topic they’re writing on.
Here are some assertive tone examples for a business context:
I am confident we can come to a mutual agreement on this issue.
Pay attention to details.
I am unavailable at this time due to other engagements. We will have to find another time to meet.
Using strong language (“I am confident”), statements vs. questions (e.g., “We will have to find another time to meet” vs. “Are you available for another time?”), and imperatives (“Pay attention”) can create a strong and assertive business tone.
Here are some assertive tone examples for an academic context:
This paper tackles the problem of COVID-19 detection.
It is evident from the results…
The outcome of this research is crucial…
This paper attempts to solve the problem of COVID-19 detection.
The results suggest/give some indication of…
The outcome of this research could be useful…
The difference in vocabulary in these examples are what set them apart as assertive or weak statements. In academic writing, authors should be firm and confident in their findings (or lack thereof in some cases).
Employing the appropriate tone in your writing can make the difference in whether you reach a business agreement with a potential client, evoke emotion from your reader, or have your scholarly article accepted for publication.