Tone Questions on SAT Critical Reading

Tone questions are considered some of the more difficult ones on the Reading section. They usually ask what the author’s tone is, but may occasionally ask for the author’s attitude, or rarely, style.

You may have learned about many different literary tones in English class. I found a list of over 50 tones on the web, which included words such as “disdainful” and “whimsical.” Not to worry – on the SAT you mostly have to determine whether the tone is positive, negative, or neutral.

In the majority of non-fiction passages, the author’s tone will be neutral. Common synonyms for neutral are objective and unbiased. Others are dispassionate and detached. However, don’t choose indifferent, which means “not caring.” If an author writes about a subject, he cares about it.

Note that if you stop reading right here, and choose the most neutral answer on every tone question, you’ll get more than half of them right.

A few non-fiction passages are argumentative; the author argues for or against something (so the tone will be positive or negative, depending on which).

English: Happy Face

Some tone questions are specific; rather than asking for the tone of the entire passage, they focus on one paragraph, or even a sentence or two. You’ll find more positive and negative answers on these.

If you are unsure as to the tone, look for evaluative words to give you a clue (most often adjectives). For example, if your teacher calls your report clever or insightful, she’s praising your work. Shoddy or irrelevant would be negative terms.

Tone questions about fiction passages aren’t necessarily more difficult, as long as you keep in mind that the answer will be positive or negative as often as it will be neutral. On the SAT, most non-fiction passages are written in an academic style. In fiction, anything goes. Characters can hate each other or put each other down.

If you are unsure which answer is correct, avoid extremes. For one thing, you have already learned that SAT passages tend toward neutrality. For another, if two answers lean the same way (positive or negative), the weaker answer must be correct. For example, suppose that you know the tone is negative, but there are two negative answers: disappointed and loathing (detesting, hating). Just pick “disappointed” and move on. If someone hates something, he would find it disappointing as well. But there can only be one correct answer on the SAT, so if the correct answer were “loathing,” the test developers would have to leave the answer “disappointed” out.

Finally, some SAT teachers tell you to avoid contradictory answers (two-word answers where one word is positive and the other is negative). Not so – the contradictory words tend to cancel out, yielding the sort of neutral answers that you’re often looking for. For example, the answer to one tone question in the Blue Book is “condescendingly tolerant.”

As always, you should anticipate on Critical Reading questions, and tone questions are no exception. Don’t take a peek at the answers until you have decided what the tone is.


7 comments on “Tone Questions on SAT Critical Reading

  1. Jon,

    Sorry to pick on you this week, but In my experience, the answers to most tone questions on the SAT are not neutral per se but rather *relatively* neutral — that is, they tend to go slightly to either side — positive or negative — of the neutral line. As I always tell my students, if the tone were too extreme, the answers would be too obvious and the test would be too easy. (As a side note, I find that for most kids, the biggest problem is figuring out whether an author is in fact positive or negative. They have trouble drawing a connection between the use of specific words and the author’s tone and frequently tend to rely on overall impressions instead.) But just because the right answer usually isn’t extreme — although very occasionally it is — doesn’t mean that it’s actually neutral. A negative word and a positive word do not necessarily cancel each other out; rather, they provide a more nuanced idea of what the tone actually is.

    Take the example you’ve provided: “condescendingly tolerant.” I’ve done that passage many, many times, and I don’t think one could really argue that the author’s attitude is in fact neutral. Quite the contrary: the author thinks that most viewers are essentially morons with no sense of what constitutes “aesthetic enjoyment proper” (or something along those lines. I think that’s the phrasing he uses). He might be treating their lack of sophistication indulgently, but that indulgence doesn’t detract from the fact that he thinks they’re morons. The answer falls into the “somewhat negative” category, not the neutral one.

    Part of what makes the SAT the SAT — and what makes most commercial imitators fall short — is the fact the people at ETS almost always choose passages, even scientific ones, that have a distinct point of view. Otherwise, there would be no nuances in terms of attitude for test-takers to miss. Yes, there are some passages, mostly scientific ones, that are genuinely neutral, but I find that they’re comparatively less common.


  2. Hi Erica,

    I think that anyone with your level of expertise could “pick on” most of my articles by providing more detail or specificity than I have chosen to provide. As I’m sure you’re aware, a blog article can’t include everything that a live lesson can.

    I’m sure that you’re also aware that the author’s condescending attitude in that passage is quite unusual for the SAT.

    SAT passages in which the author merely serves as a vehicle to transmit scholarly information are far more common (e.g. most historical passages). For example, consider the author’s tone on the Frederick Douglass passage in the Blue Book.

    I have seen the correct answers “neutral,” “objective,” and “unbiased” appear in many SATs (I’ve been at this for just over 35 years, so I’ve seen hundreds of disclosure tests).

  3. Jonny says:

    I have a question. Why is there a picture of the Chilean Communist activist Camila Vallejo in this thread?

    • Good question. WordPress includes an applet that lets me insert Wikimedia images, and I inserted another photo. Somehow, it got switched later on. Note that if you hover your mouse over the image, it reads “English Happy Face.” Chalk it up to the mysteries of the interwebs.

  4. Can you please provide a list of extreme tones and attitudes of author
    I know it’s not snide but disapproving ,disparaging is better in many cases etc.

  5. Hi Paritosh,

    The point is that CB avoids extreme tones. So the correct answer will generally mean neutral, approving, or disapproving, rather than something more emotional such as ecstatic or contemptuous.

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