What is tone?

By | January 7, 2021

Guest post by Judith Roof

The below is an excerpt of the preface from Tone by Judith Roof

Key Tone

Tone  Def:  Etymology  mid-14c.,  “musical  sound  or  note,”  from  Old  French  ton  “musical  sound,  speech,  words”  (13c.)  and directly from Latin tonus “a sound, tone, accent,” literally “stretching”  (in  Medieval  Latin,  a  term  peculiar  to  music),  from  Greek  tonos  “vocal  pitch,  raising  of  voice,  accent,  key  in  music,”  originally  “a  stretching,  tightening,  taut  string,”  related to teinein “to stretch,” from PIE root *ten– “to stretch.” Sense of “manner of speaking” is from c. 1600. First reference to  firmness  of  body  is  from  1660s.  As  “prevailing  state  of  manners”  from  1735;  as  “style  in  speaking  or  writing  which  reveals  attitude”  from  1765.  Tone-deaf  is  from  1880;  tone-poem from 1845.

Tone is the quality you imagine you hear (audiate) when you read. Tone both produces and seems to emanate from an imaginary voice (or  voices)  recounting  a  printed  text. 

What  will  interest  us  today—what  we  must  respond  to,  for  interest  now  becomes  an  inappropriate  word—is  an  accent  in  the  novelist’s  voice,  an  accent  for  which  the  flutes  and  saxophones  of  fantasy  may  have  prepared  us.  His  theme  is  the universe, or something universal, but he is not necessarily going  to  “say”  anything  about  the  universe;  he  proposes  to  sing, and the strangeness of a song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will a song combine with the furniture  of  our  common  sense?  We  shall  ask  ourselves,  and  shall have to answer “not too well”: the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing room after an earthquake or a children’s party. Readers of D. H. Lawrence will understand what I mean.

What Tone and Why?

Tone is the quality you imagine you hear (audiate) when you read. Tone both produces and seems to emanate from an imaginary voice (or  voices)  recounting  a  printed  text.  The  text’s  diction,  syntax,  contexts,  and  connotations  merge  to  produce  tone  as  a  complex,  imaginary  audial  phenomenon.  A  text’s  enactment  of  its  telling  produces the impression that there is a teller, whose tone, whether identifiably personable, simply hosting, roving, or barely perceptible, derives from the story’s specific rhetorical impressions. This tone, in turn,  produces  a  more  specific  sense  of  a  still  imaginary  narrator  from  whom  this  tone  seems  to  emanate.  Tone  is  thus  a  moebius,  producing  the  imaginary  of  the  one  who  would  produce  such  a  tone, as well as the teller’s various attitudes, feelings, perspectives, inclinations, and moods. In all texts, the tone of the telling produces the sense of a narrator who tells.

Theories  of  narrative  and  narrating  as  well  as  interpretations  of  individual  texts  rarely  treat  tone  as  a  necessary  or  important  element of literary critique. There is seldom any discussion of tone as an essential element of narration, inhabiting a sense of narrated events, contributing to the production of character, diegesis, story, or  as  being  anything  other  than  an  indicator  of  the  imaginary  narrator’s (often conflated with the “author”) attitude toward some element it recounts. Readers tend to be conscious of tone when it accompanies  and  defines  more  rhetorical  arguments,  where  tone  (ironic, exhortative, chiding, enthusiastic, etc.) is an overt device for persuasion.  Tone  is,  nonetheless,  a  key  element  by  which  all  texts  produce the illusion of a telling voice, offer a sense of personality, inflect  events  recounted,  anticipate  certain  directions,  and  create  an  ambiance  that  simultaneously  produces,  enables,  and  shapes  narratives and characters, while producing a feel that may or may not seduce or alienate readers. Tone is central, persuasive, pervasive, and dangerous.

Tone is an ever-changing impression that builds on itself and the context which produces it.

Because readers audiate tone (and, according to groups of readers, not all readers audiate when they read or are aware that they do so), tone seems to derive from a subjective impression, attributed to an originary or “outside” agency/narrator/author whose attitudes tone conveys. Since tone is an effect of the text, we can track the elements that  produce  whatever  variations  in audiation there might be by closely reading a text’s diction, syntax, elements of context (reader’s assumptions about author, style, genre, period, etc.) and the ways the  accruing  ordering  of  plot  events  and  characterological  details  retrospectively  resignify  tone  as  we  read  along. The complexities of tone suggest that reading is always simultaneously forward and backward, anticipatory and retrospective. Tone is an ever-changing impression that builds on itself and the context which produces it.

What  is  the  tone  of  this  introduction?  Earnest?  Chiding?  Nostalgic?  But,  more  important,  how  do  these  tones  relate  to  what the text offers? How does any text produce tone in the first place? Only by investigating tone’s production can we understand tone and how it operates within texts to produce attitude, feeling, personality, inclination, and atmosphere. What follows are twenty-four short essays on how texts produce tone and how tones work in texts. This is a broad study of tone in (primarily) twentieth-century and contemporary English-language literary and critical texts that range from modernist fiction to robot-authored news stories. It is also a return to some of the ignored but recently crucial products of  close  reading.  The  purpose  of  these  essays  is  to  show  not  only  how complexly tone is both engrained in and produced by texts but also the ways tone is an intrinsic part of both art and “meaning.” Language  always  bears  tone,  even  if  it  seems  to  thud  soundlessly  onto  a  rock  wall.  Tone  derives  from  the  lovely  reverberations,  echoes,  resoundings,  joy,  angst,  raised-eyebrow,  snide,  tongue-in-cheek utter seriousness of language that produces the telling, colors what the teller offers, and embraces the audiating reader as a part of the process.


Judith Roof is the William Shakespeare Chair in English at Rice University, USA. She is the author of The Comic Event: Comedic Performance from the 1950s to the Present (Bloomsbury, 2018), What Gender Is, What Gender Does (2016), as well as five other monographs, six edited (or co-edited) books, and more than 80 essays on topics ranging from modern drama to The Big Lebowski, Ethel Merman, Posthumanism, the novels of Percival Everett, the work of Rabelais, Beckett, Pinter, Duras, psychoanalysis, narrative theory, film studies, genetics, critical legal studies, and secondary characters. Tone is now available.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

sixteen + 7 =