Style Diction and Tone: Reading Comprehension Review Study Guide (page 2)

Updated on Aug 24, 2011

Degree of Formality

Is the writing casual or formal? Is it friendly, or all business? How does the writer address people? Does he or she say Mr. Jones, or Robert, or Bobby? How much slang, if any, does the writer use? Read these two examples. Which has a higher degree of formality?

    Hi Jenny. How are you? I was just wondering if you wanted to go to the movies with me and Myong on Saturday. Let me know when you can. Thanks!
    Dear Jennifer,
    I hope you are well. I am writing to inquire as to whether you would like to join me and Myong for a movie on Saturday. Please respond at your earliest convenience. Thank you.


    THIS IS THE format for a formal business letter.
    [Your name]
    [Phone number]
    RE: [What the letter is about]
    [Recipient's name]
    Dear [recipient's name]:
    [body of letter]
    [your signature]
    [your name]


What words has the writer chosen? Read these two examples. Why do you think the writer chose those particular words?

Please remove your unwashed feet from the sofa.
Get your dirty feet off the couch.


PAY CLOSE ATTENTION to the words people use when they're talking to you. Think about why they chose the words they did.

Diction means the specific words a writer chooses. As you've probably noticed from looking at a dictionary, there are a lot of words in the English language. So it stands to reason that the decision to choose one word over another must be an important part to writing and must say something about the writer's intentions. A good writer chooses words carefully, making sure they're the best to convey the message of the passage. So, thinking about a writer's diction gives you more information. And, as we've been saying, more information is always good!


THE WORD DICTION comes from the Latin word dictio, which means speaking.

Read the following sentences.

    Sentence A: The school's recycling policy has been implemented.
    Sentence B: The school's recycling policy has finally been implemented.

You may have noticed that only one word is different between sentence A and sentence B. Sentence B has the word finally. Both sentences give the reader the same basic information: The school's recycling policy has been implemented. But by adding the word finally, the writer has given us even more information by picking that specific word to make sure the message gets across. What do you think we can infer from the author's use of finally in sentence B? Well, it seems to imply that there was some amount of time between the day the policy was first proposed and the day it was implemented. We also get a feeling that the writer has been frustrated waiting for the plan to go into effect. The recycling policy hasn't just been implemented—it's finally been implemented. See how just one word can convey another level of meaning within a passage?

Denotation and Connotation

Sometimes words mean exactly what they say, but other times, a different meaning is suggested. It's the difference between denotation and connotation.

    denotation = exact meaning
    connotation = implied or suggested meaning


A WORD'S CONNOTATION comes from the context in which it's written, so pay attention to the words around it.


NOTICE WHAT PEOPLE around you are saying. Do they mean exactly what they say? Or is there a connotation?

For example, read the following sentences and notice the difference between them.

    Sentence A: I had a long wait before I saw the doctor.
    Sentence B: I had a protracted wait before I saw the doctor.

You probably noticed that sentence A uses the word long, while sentence B uses the word protracted. These two words mean essentially the same thing, a large amount of time. But the word protracted has a different connotation. When the author chose to use protracted, he or she implied the wait was not just long, it was longer than it should have been because there was some sort of delay. As you can see, observing not just the denotation of words, but also the connotation can help you to understand what you're reading.


Tone is how a word is said. For example, think about the phrase, excuse me. Depending on how you say it, it can mean different things. If you say it like a question, "Excuse me?" it means, "I didn't hear you." If you say it as more of a statement, it can mean, "Can you please move?" It can even mean a sarcastic "I'm sorry," if said with attitude. Try all three and you'll see how important tone can be in determining meaning.


TRY SAYING THE word hey in as many different tones as possible.

Tone applies to writing in much the same way as it does to speech. It can be more difficult, however, to pick up on a writer's tone while you're reading because you don't have the added clues of body language. Don't worry: You might not have body language, but you have context language. The text surrounding a word or phrase can tell you a lot about the tone.

Look at the following two letters.

    Letter A:
    Dear Client:
    Thank you for your letter. We will take your suggestion into consideration. We appreciate your concern.
    Letter B:
    Dear Valued Customer:
    Thank you for your recent letter regarding our refund policy and procedure. We are taking your suggestion quite seriously and truly appreciate your concern.


UNDERSTANDING THE TONE of the text isn't an exact science, so don't forget to use your instincts.

Notice how different the tone is in the two letters? The tone of letter A is fairly indifferent, while the tone of letter B is sincere and apologetic. What accounts for the difference in tone? Once you're able to identify what it is that gives writing one tone versus another, you'll be well on your way to being a successful reader.

What is it about letter A that makes it seem indifferent—like the person writing it doesn't care much about the client? And what is it about letter B that seems sincere and apologetic? Well, using your observation skills, go over the four elements that make up a passage's style and see if you can identify each element in the letters.

Sentence Structure:

  • Letter A has three relatively short and concise sentences.
  • Letter B has two longer sentences instead of three shorter ones.

Degree of Detail and Description:

  • Letter A lacks detail and description.
  • Letter B describes what the letter was regarding and details how the situation will be handled.
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