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).
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.