SAT Tip: Identifying Tone in Critical Reading Passages

Photograph by Louis Allum

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Alice Rothman-Hicks at Veritas Prep.

Tone questions are often students’ least favorite types of SAT critical-reading questions—and rightfully so. As if it weren’t difficult enough to read and understand the actual words in an SAT reading comprehension passage, tone-related questions force you to go one step farther and understand the meaning behind those words. It can be difficult to know where to start with tone, so here are some specific tips:

Let the italicized headnote guide you. The SAT will often provide you with a useful tidbit in the italicized headnote above the passage, and that tidbit could have some bearing on how you interpret the author’s tone.

For example, if the headnote says that “the following passage is excerpted from a 19th century British novel,” you might anticipate the somewhat wry, ironic tone and heightened language that tend to be characteristic of that period and style. Similarly, if the headnote says that “the following passage is excerpted from a scientific article,” you will likely anticipate the dry, clinical, neutral tone that tends to characterize those kinds of articles. Whether or not your tone prediction is correct, it will help give you some idea of what you might expect or look out for as you start reading the passage.

Notice little details. Tone is generally evident in the details of a passage: the specific words used to describe people or things; the use of particularly heightened or lowbrow language (hyperbole, technical jargon, slang, and so forth); and even the use of qualifying or connecting words (such as “rather,” “indeed,” “undoubtedly,” and so on). Notice as much as you can while you read the passage.

Notice anything that jumps out. If a word, phrase, description, or sentence strikes you as odd or interesting, take note of this. It could provide a crucial detail for determining the author’s tone. You’ll probably find yourself asking questions about it. “Why did the author use the word ‘claim’ rather than ‘argue’ in that sentence?” “When the author refers to the character as a ‘bulldog,’ is that a good or a bad thing?” Such questions will force your brain to stay engaged as you keep reading the passage.

Hear the author’s voice in your head. It might sound crazy, but if you can use your understanding of the author’s tone, based on all of the above, in order to imagine what the author’s voice sounds like as you read, you will likely be able to hear the tone of the passage more clearly. Indeed, if you can hear the author’s voice on a difficult passage—even if you don’t understand what every word of the passage means—you’ll often be able to intuit the tone of that passage and then answer many questions correctly based on that.

Process of elimination is your friend. When in doubt, eliminate. Some author attitudes/tones can almost always be eliminated immediately, based on who the passage-writers are. Such words as “indifferent” or “negligent” or “confused” are bound to be incorrect because the scholarly people writing these passages are unlikely to write an article about the topic if they really don’t care about it. Similarly, these writers tend to be fairly moderate in their emotions and opinions, which means that you can eliminate tones/attitudes that are too emotionally extreme, such as “outraged,” “despairing,” or “jubilant.”

Finally, when all else fails, remember that even if you have only a general understanding of the passage’s tone, you can—and should—use that understanding to eliminate at least a couple of answer choices and make an educated guess from there.

Alice Rothman-Hicks is a Veritas Prep SAT 2400 instructor.  Since graduating from Columbia University (Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa), Alice has been teaching and tutoring test prep, helping students achieve their own academic successes.  She scored a 2350 on the SAT.

For more SAT advice from Veritas Prep watch “SAT Tip: 3 Essential Strategies for Passage-Based Reading Questions”

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