Lesson - Critical Reading Skill: Identifying Tone

GRE Critical Reading: Identifying Tone

To better understand a passage, a reader should identify the author's attitude, or tone.  Evaluating tone gives readers a better understanding of the author’s argument and purpose for writing.

The author's tone is closely associated with the writer's purpose.  The writer will use a certain voice to convey the main idea and purpose of a passage.  That voice often reveals the author's attitude toward the subject.

Compare the passages below:

Passage (i)

     The treadmill began to whir, and I gripped its handlebars as the belt started moving me backwards.  All I could do now was run -- or begrudgingly barrel forward -- toward an outdated screen that showed me the terrain I was supposed to be running on.  It was made of red squares stacked up, one on top of another: the higher stacks were supposed to be steep hills, and the lower ones, valleys.  I tried to picture them as burning coals to see if that would make me speed up or at least feel like this exercise was somehow connected to nature -- even one of its cruel parts.

How would you describe this author's attitude towards the treadmill?


Passage (ii)

     The treadmill began to whir, and my heart sped up faster than the belt could go.  Instead of pressing "select" on my remote control to escape into a TV show, I had just selected "Power Run."  A sleek screen with a simple set of red lines showed me the terrain on which I was running.  Those red lines looked like a pulse, and they got me to run farther and faster than I could ever run when I'm outside, worried about weather, cars, or other people.  It may not have looked like I was going anywhere that night, but I had just broken out of a ten-year slump. 

How would you describe this author's attitude towards the treadmill?


In Passage (i), the author must have a negative view of running on a treadmill.

How do we know that?

Consider the specific details, comparisons and word choices the author uses.

Specific Details that the Author Chose to Include

  • "treadmill moving me backward"  -- Why did the author choose to mention that it moved him/her backward?

  • imagining that the red squares as burning coals -- That does not sound pleasant.


Word Choice

  • "begrudgingly"
  • "outdated"
  • "... run -- or barrel forward" (emphasis added)
  • "... one of its cruel parts" (emphasis added)

 > All of these verbs, adverbs, and adjectives have negative connotations.

Words to describe the author's tone include sardonic, pessimistic, and critical.


In Passage (ii), the author must have a positive view of the experience.

How do we know that?

Consider the specific details, comparisons and word choices that the author uses.

Specific Details that the Author Chose to Include

  • I had just selected "Power Run." -- The phrase shows ambition and confidence if the outcome is positive
  • " I had just broken out of a ten-year slump." -- The author ends by explaining the positive impact this workout had on her life.



  • "heart sped up faster than the belt could" -- intense!
  • "red lines looked like a pulse" -- shows energy or liveliness


Word Choice

  • "farther and faster" -- benefits of running inside
  • "sleek" -- author's positive opinion of the screen on the treadmill

> These adverbs and adjectives show a positive view of the subject's progress and one of the treadmill's main features.

Words to describe the author's tone include exuberant, enthusiastic, and excited.


Other common descriptions of an author's tone include adjectives like cynical, depressed, hopeful, wistful, sympathetic, cheerful, outraged, positive, angry, sarcastic, ironic, solemn, vindictive, and intense.



Read the two passages below, and then answer questions regarding the author's purpose, organizational pattern and tone.

Passage 1

     Anyone can understand the confusion ancient traders experienced trying to market their goods without a common standard of measurement.  Imagine trying to sell grain in Egypt by the basket without having any comparison to make as to the basket's weight or volume.  Such were the problems in early times when weight had to be guessed or measured against a standard of the weight of stones, seashells, seeds, or grain.

     Problems also existed in terms of measurement of lengths.  One of the earliest linear measurements was the foot which first took its standard from the length of a human foot and later used the length of a king's foot as the standard.  Archaeologists have traced people's attempts to grapple with standard units of measurement from the ancient Egyptians' attempts to reset precise property lines after flooding of the Nile River to biblical times when a cubit was the standard unit of length.  The cubit took its standard from the distance between the end of the elbow to the end of the middle finger -- usually about 18 inches.  The Romans defined the inch as the width of the thumb, and the mile as 311,000 paces.  The problems involved in using such measurements are obvious.  Imagine trying to set new, more accurate standards among people who hung on tenaciously to existing standards.

     When the Romans conquered ancient Britain, they brought their standards of measurement along and imposed them on the people.  Consequently, some of these standards have survived to the 20th century.  The British Imperial System of weights and measures evolved from many sources and became fairly well standardized by the 19th century.  The standard yard and pound were kept in the Houses of Parliament.  However, when the Parliament building burned in 1834, the standards were destroyed.  British scientists then began to press for a more uniform standard for the gallon, the pound, and the yard which could be used in the entire British Empire.  This made trading, buying, and selling much more uniform.

1.  The first sentence in paragraph 1 indicates that the author's purpose is --

A)  to analyze the problems of weights and measures.
B)  to explain the growth of standards of measurements.
C)  to describe the problems associated with lack of standards in weights and measurements.
D)  to classify standards of weights and measurements.
E)  to persuade readers to adopt a new set of weights and measurements.

2.  The tone of this passage can be described as --

A)  angry.
B)  confused.
C)  formal.
D)  informative.
E)  ironic.

Passage 2

    One of the industrial giants who changed American society was Henry Ford.  Born on a farm in Michigan in 1863, he grew up to bring forth some of the most revolutionary improvements in automotive technology in the early 20th century.  His outstanding mechanical ability led him to become interested in the new automobiles in the early 1900s.  Though he did not invent the automobile, he improved upon everyone else's designs.
     He was a person who believed in inexpensive, efficient production, so he established standards for his plant and workers.  He also standardized and produced many new auto parts for his Ford Motor Company cars.  Then he studied the workers' problems and built an assembly line -- the first of its kind in America.  This ingenious improvement led to mass production of thousands of automobiles per year.  In fact, his plants had produced 15 million Model Ts by 1927.
     Ford's personality was not all thrift, efficiency, and ingenuity, however.  He was a man who was cold and who could not keep pace with the competition due to his own rigidity.  His company suffered because of his desire to maintain the status quo instead of meeting and beating the competition by changing his product.  Finally, he saw that he must change or lose out; therefore, he introduced the eight-cylinder engine and once again took over the automobile market.  Ford left a legacy of millions of dollars, millions of jobs for American workers, and millions of satisfied customers.

1.  In developing the passage, the organizational pattern used by the author could be described as --

A)  simple listing
B)  time order
C)  example
D)  cause and effect
E)  compare and contrast

2.  The tone of this passage can be described as --

A)  optimistic
B)  formal
C)  serious
D)  critical
E)  sympathetic

Answer Key

Passage 1

1.  The correct choice is C.
The sentence signals description.  It does not indicate parts to be analyzed, explanations of the standards of measurements, classifications of these weights and measurements, or an argument in favor of a new measurement system.

2.  The correct choice is D.
This passage is straightforward.  Its use of language is not colorful, formal, sarcastic, or confused.

Passage 2

1.  The correct choice is C.
This passage contains many examples of Ford's contributions to society.  It does not contain a listing or cause/effect.  Although the passage does begin with the year of Ford's birth, it is not totally in time order.

2.  The correct choice is C.
The passage is serious rather than formal, critical, optimistic, or sympathetic.  The sentences are mostly objectively written; they do not include many value judgments.