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Tone: An Important Tool In SAT / ACT Literary Passages

A powerful tool in the reading comprehension section is tone, the attitude an author or a character takes toward a specific topic. Tone is an important concept during the course of the passage, within the questions, and in question options.

When first reading a passage, you should be keenly aware of tone. If the passage is a literary one, what emotions are the characters expressing? How does the writer feel about his characters, especially the main character in the passage? You don't have to pinpoint something specific. It's enough to know if the emotions being expressed are positive, negative, or neutral.

If you're reading a non-fiction section, the topic of "tone" still applies, but in a slightly different variation. We'll discuss this further in a future article.

Oftentimes, knowing what the general tenor of the answer should be is enough to answer the question. Sometimes tone will point you in the general direction, sometimes it will eliminate certain answer choices, and sometimes it will hand you the answer itself.

The advantage of this element in the reading comprehension section is that tone - especially negative tone - is easy to detect. Many students can't pinpoint the exact emotion being expressed - resentment? regret? mild annoyance? They may have difficult isolating the specific words or phrases which created the tone. But almost everyone can infer whether the tone of a passage is positive, negative, or neutral. In many cases, that's enough.

In order to illustrate our point most effectively, we'll look at a few passage extracts and examine the answer options available.


Passage Extract #1

'When the case was first documented, it didn't garner unusual attention; its details were something that had been seen in the precint many times before. It was only when Mr. Henry Castings, an ornithologist associated with the city university who had been questioned in relation to a minute element of the case, heard of the supicious circumstances, that he first drew attention to an unusual facet of the case. Mr. Castings was the first to notice that the birds observed at the scene of the crime were not native to the region. This had gone previously undetected, as the birds resembled another species commonly found in the region. However, Mr. Castings, after a careful examination of the photographs found amongst the documentation, pointed out that the birds at the scene were differentiable from those native to the region by two subtle, but distinct, features. Firstly, the feet of those birds captured within the photograph were wider than those typically found in the region. When scaled to size, it was estimated that their feet were on average three inches wider than those of the local birds. Secondly, the two birds photographed in profile bore evidence to the fact that their beaks were considerably longer, and sharper, than those of the local birds.

In order to identify other varying factors which might distinguish the birds and help identify their origins, Mr. Castings offered to send the photographs to his colleagues in the ornithology department of his university. Their collective knowledge, he suggested, might to be enough to provide a clue as to the possible origins of the birds in the photograph.

Question #1

The information in the passage strongly suggests that Mr. Castings

A) lacked the ornithological skill to identify the birds in the photograph.

B) possessed a strong familiarity with the birds of the region.

C) was dissatisfied with the negligence displayed in the detection of the birds.

D) had helped the police with cases before.

Note that the passage itself is fairly neutral. It's a disengaged description of an anomaly which might lead to the resolution of the case. The answer options, on the other hand, are a different story.

Look at option A). You should be able to identify that the tone of option A) is negative towards Mr. Castings. Does this align with the tone the passage takes?

No. Mr. Castings is the one who first detected the anomaly. He noticed something no one else had, was able to point to two specific pieces of evidence which proved his point, and made a practical suggestion (sending the photographs to his colleagues) in order to move the case forward. The general impression we get of him is competence - a positive quality.

Mr. Castings suggests sending the photographs to his colleagues in the hopes that their pooled knowledge can solve the puzzle of the birds' origins - not because he himself is unskilled at what he does.

But frankly, that doesn't matter; there's no need for measured analysis. It's enough to detect tone. Option A) has a negative tone towards Mr. Castings; does the passage have a negative tone towards Mr. Castings? No? Then move on.

Now let's look at option C): 'Mr. Castings was dissatisfied with the negligence displayed in the detection of the birds.' Here, too, we have a negative tone, indicated by the words 'dissatisfied' and 'negligence.' This time it is Mr. Castings who feels negatively, in regard to the people conducting the case.

Let's revisit the passage. Is the tone of Mr. Castings, when he expresses himself, charged with emotion in any way? Is he expressing a positive / negative thought? No. His tone throughout is neutral.

Some of my students would find it probable that Mr. Castings is dissatisfied. He seems competent; the police don't seem competent. The most obvious emotion he would have is dissatisfaction and, to some extent, exasperation.

This is the mistake of making assumptions on things the passage doesn't touch upon. It's a common blunder on the SAT / ACT, and one we'll discuss in a future article. But for the purpose of this article, it's irrelevant. When it comes to tone, don't get bogged down in details. Does the tone of the answer option match the tone of the passage? No? Onwards.

That leaves options B) and D).

Option D), 'Mr. Castings had helped the police with cases before', is unsupported by the text.

Option B), 'Mr. Castings possessed a strong familiarity with the birds of the region', is fine. Mr. Castings was able to discriminate between the photograph birds and the local birds by their feet and their beaks. In order to do so, he would have had to have been familiar with the physical features of the local birds. The answer is B).

Passage Extract #2

‘Francesco dropped the letter on his desk and rushed from the room. It took but a few moments to settle the final details of his stay; the bill for his final night was paid, his few parcels and garments packed in his valise, and a small breakfast half-heartedly attempted, before the clock had struck eight. Both maids circling the dining room offered him coffees with his breakfast. These were rejected; he didn’t think he could absorb another touch of stress upon his nerves. The news of his mother’s illness had driven all excitement, all equanimity, all important gains made in these past few nights in Rome, entirely from his mind; he could think only of her.

‘He walked to the station with Giuseppe, who discussed at length the sightseeing tour they had made yesterday. Francesco was correct and polite, but he couldn’t keep his mind from wandering.'

Question #1

What does the passage suggest regarding the attitude of others toward Francesco? A) They’re trying to cheer Francesco up because of his mother’s illness.

B) They’re annoyed that Francesco is so distracted.

C) They’re unaware that anything’s wrong.

D) They’re sympathetic but discrete.

This is clearly a tone question. If for no other reason, it's clear from the keyword in the question: 'attitude.' The passage itself is also emotionally charged. The character, Francesco, has just received word that his mother is ill; the rest of the extract involves his hurried preparations to abandon his travelings, as a result.

In addition, most of the answer options have 'tone' words: 'cheer him up', 'annoyed', 'sympathetic.'

Now let's try to solve the question itself. The question asks about the attitude of 'others.' The only people mentioned in this extract are the two maids and Giuseppe. What is the attitude of these personages towards Francesco?

Well, we know that the maids have offered Francesco coffee, and that Giuseppe is talking about the places in Rome they visited yesterday. The tone of all this? Neutral.

Now look at the answer options. Options A) and D) are both positive on the part of the others towards Francesco. Option B) is negative. The only neutral option is C): 'They're unaware that anything's wrong.'

Note that elements of each answer option is correct, or might be correct. Take option A), for example: 'They're trying to cheer Francesco up because of his mother's illness.' Or option B): 'They're annoyed that Francesco is so distracted.' Both things written in bold are correct: Francesco's mother is ill, and Francesco is clearly distracted. Option D) also has an element of truth: Perhaps the maids and Giuseppe are truly sympathetic, but are trying to be considerate and give Francesco some space. The passage probably needs to be read over carefully to see if this is true.

Don't be distracted! Just stick with tone. The golden rule is, When you CAN use tone to answer a question, you SHOULD use tone.

One method the SAT / ACT employs to trick you in the reading comprehension section is putting true elements into wrong answer options. We'll discuss this further in a future article.

Let's look at another question from the same passage extract.

Question #2

Based on the passage, how does the author feels towards Francesco? A) Frustration

B) Detachment

C) Sympathy

D) Annoyance

This is clearly a tone question, based on both the general tenor of the passage extract, as well as the question phrasing itself: "how does the author feel?" And since they're asking about the tone of the author, in this case, we must look at the extract as a whole.

Instead of trying to answer what exact feeling the author has towards Francesco, we'll first answer the simpler question of tone. Does the author have a positive, negative, or neutral attitude towards Francesco? At best, this question alone will help us answer the original immediately. At the very least, it will help us eliminate other options, and steer us in the correct direction.

In emotionally charged literary passages - in fact, in literary passages in general - the author is almost always emotionally involved. That is, the author almost never feels neutrally toward the main character. You can eliminate that option right now from this question, and from future questions like it.

In our case, the author doesn't feel negatively towards the main character. There's nothing here which indicates antagonism, hostility, disgust, or any other negative emotion. What we see is a description of Francesco's activities after he has just learned that his mother is ill - an event most likely to promote sympathy, compassion, and kindness. These are positive emotions; therefore, we could expect the answer to be one of positive tone.

Looking at the answer options, we see that option A), 'frustration', and option D), 'annoyance', are both negative. Option B), 'detachment', is neutral. The only positive emotion expressed in the answer choices is C), 'sympathy'. This is the answer.

A few closing notes

When reading literary passages on the reading comprehension section, always be cognizant of tone. It will lead you in the correct direction for many of the questions, and will cut out a lot of the frustration.

There are certain literary passages on the SAT / ACT that are especially laden with emotion. Identify them. In such cases, many, if not most, of the questions will touch upon tone. This should make solving them considerably easier.

Lastly, when encountering tone-related questions or question options, use tone as your first resort in solving. If an option has the wrong tone, eliminate it immediately. Do not get bogged down in details.

For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.

Happy learning,