SAT Tip: Finding An Author's 'Tone'

This tip on improving your SAT score was provided by Vivian Kerr at Veritas Prep.

SAT Passage-Based Reading questions that ask about tone or the author’s attitude are not quite as common as Detail questions, but we see them enough to know that tone is something we should always be looking out for. To solve “Tone” questions, you must follow one major rule: Look at the adjectives. How does the author describe the topics in each paragraph? Adjectives are colorful, descriptive words that reveal opinion. Pay close attention to them as you read the SAT passage the first time. If you do the work up front, it will pay off when you get to the questions.

When you encounter an SAT question that asks about the tone, go back to the passage. Ask yourself: What does the author like and what does he dislike? It’s important to note that while the author will have opinions, they may not be obvious. The passages are often scholarly and balanced in tone, so you must carefully look back to the adjectives and adverbs to “dig” for those tiny revelatory details that imply a “light/humorous” tone vs. an “emphatic/conscientious” tone.

Pay close attention to the “blurb.” That little italicized paragraph that precedes the passage can be your best friend. Does it tell you where the passage is from? The tone of a book review or a short story is often different from that of a scientific article in a well-respected academic journal. Knowing the context can help you figure out whether the tone is likely to be formal or more casual.

Cover up the choices with your hand. This is so you won’t read them until you come up with your own answer. The SAT Reading passages are testing your ability to think critically, and you must remember that the answer choices are not there to help you. The test writers are very good at writing tempting, incorrect answer choices. Once you read them, you can never “unread” them and they are likely to influence your decision-making. Use the descriptive words of the passage to determine the tone, or assign a simple positive (+) or negative (-) sign for connotation. Even if you’re not sure what a word means, you can usually assign a (+) or a (-) based on gut instinct.

Eliminate answers that are extreme or out of scope. Look for the subtle differences between any remaining answer choices. You may encounter two words with very similar meanings. For example: “dislike” and “despise.” How do they differ? Is one of them overly emotional, informal, or extreme? Unless it’s truly appropriate to the passage, go with the more “middle-of-the-road” word. In this case, it would be “dislike.”

Remember, the tone of most SAT passages is academic and technical and not too emotional. So though “wry” might be a fair tone, “hilarious” probably won’t be. Use your common sense to eliminate the ridiculously illogical tone-words on Test Day.

For Passage-Based Reading question practice, take a full-length SAT practice test to sharpen your skills.

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