Tone describes the attitude of a piece of writing: whether the writing is formal or informal, playful or serious, ironic or sincere. You can convey tone in a variety of ways, but here we cover a few simples strategies for adapting tone to audience.


The pronouns you use in your writing can indicate the relationship you have with your audience. One way to establish that relationship is to use pronouns: first, second, or third person, in singular or plural. Click here for more on pronoun use. For example, if you consider the relationship between you and the reader to be friendly, then you would likely use the first person ("I" or "we") to refer to yourself and the second person ("you") to address the reader. You can see this strategy employed in a variety of genres, from personal essays to advertisements, where ad makers wish to appear friendly and intimate with audiences.

On the other hand, some styles of formal writing avoid pronouns that refer to the writer and readers. This strategy is common in scientific writing because the emphasis is on the experiment, not the scientists who conducted the work. The effect gives the writing an objective, highly formal tone.

You can't always tell from context what the appropriate tone is for your writing and whether you can use "I," for example, in academic papers, so it's generally a good idea to ask your instructors what the conventions are regarding the use of pronouns in the writing you do for their courses.


Lexical items—or words—also contribute to creating the tone of a piece of writing. Most words have a denotatational and connotation meaning. What a word denotes is what the word means. More specifically, if you were to look up a word in the dictionary, you would find its denotational meaning. What a word connotes is more nuanced and refers to the associative meanings we attach to specific words. For example, the verbs "to dine" and "to eat" both denote the consumption of food; however, the former connotes a more formal meal while the latter suggest a functional activity. For example, you'd eat a pizza with your friends; you'd put on heels or a tie to dine. In either case, the tone you want to communicate will be shaped to a great extent by the specific words you select.

Establishing tone with word choice is an important aspect of communicating effectively. Diction, or word choice, will to a great extent be shaped by what is appropriate in a particular context. For example, informal diction such as "big deal," "stuff," and "freak out" would surprise readers of an academic essay, but would be quite common to hear in a conversation with a friend.

Contractions and connectors

In informal speech, speakers often clip and shorten words or expressions to make pronunciation simpler and easier. Contractions such as "aren't," "isn't," "wasn't," and "haven't" (as opposed to "are not," "is not," "was not," and "have not") are common to informal speech but may not be appropriate in more formal writing situations. When in doubt, ask your instructor whether contactions are too informal for the writing you do in class.

It's also common to cut connectors out of words for the sake of brevity and directness in spoken language. Connectors such as "that" in "The weather was so hot (that) I had to go for a swim" are commonly omitted in casual speech, but retained in more formal contexts.

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