ACT Reading: Author’s Tone or Voice

One question type you are bound to encounter on the ACT Reading is a tone question. The tone of any given passage is the author’s emotion or feeling, usually towards his subject. An author’s style is the particular way he uses language to reflect his unique authorial voice. Most style or tone questions will include the words “attitude,” “tone,” “style,” “feeling,” etc.
You can expect an author’s tone to vary significantly among the different genres of passages. Science articles are largely neutral in tone, since they are purely informational. Humanities and social science articles will often be neutral as well, except when an author is praising or denouncing his subject. Prose fiction articles will often have the greatest range of authorial tone; in fact, the tone may change from paragraph to paragraph. A typical question of this type might look like this:
The author’s attitude toward global warming might best be described as which of the following?
Which of the following best describes the tone of the passage?
Based on the statements in lines 43-46, which of the following could be inferred about the author’s attitude toward socialism?
The best way to identify the tone of a passage is to examine certain words with positive or negative connotations. If I were writing a passage about global warming, and one sentence read “fortunately, these brilliant scientists were able to combine their wits and begin formulating promising solutions,” you should identify my tone as positive, optimistic, or reverent. I respect and honor the scientists, and I consider their research valuable and intelligent. Of course, we can imagine that an author adopt a negative tone toward the same subject. Another author might say that “the irresponsible scientists pooled together their half-baked theories to create the most egregious scare tactic of the 21st century.” Notice that positively or negatively charged word in italics – they are the keys to identifying tone.
Of course, my examples are extreme; most of the clues about an author’s tone will be more subdued. For this reason, it’s usually best to avoid the extreme answer choices. If you notice that the author is slightly skeptical about her topic, don’t choose the answer choice that says she is “vehemently opposed” to her topic.

Tone Practice Question

Here is an example of a tone question. The following paragraphs are excerpted from a passage about  the Iguacu Falls:
Iguacu Falls, which sit on the border between Argentina and Brazil, are said to make Niagara look like
a leaky faucet. The great cataracts stretch for two and a half miles across lushly foliaged rocky outcroppings
before plunging a staggering two hundred and thirty feet into the river below.
The falls region is densely forested, and is home to a wide variety of plants and animals, including
a number of endangered ones. It is a paradise where parrots dive and swoop through the spray,
butterflies cavort among the tropical plants and coatis, and giant otters and anteaters amble through
the trees. The foliage itself varies between tropical and deciduous with orchids blushing in the shade
of pines and ferns nodding gracefully in the shadow of fruit trees.
The author’s attitude toward Iguacu Falls can best be described as which of the following?
A. Overweening pride.
B. Positive appreciation.
C. Mild acceptance.
D. Apathetic objectivity.
E. Cautious optimism.


Even though I’ve only included two paragraphs from the passage, we can still answer the question about the author’s tone. First, try to identify words with positive or negative connotations, or identify phrases that reveal the author’s attitude toward the falls. The first sentence reveals the author’s reverence for the falls; if the Iguacu Falls make Niagara look like a ‘leaky faucet,’ they must be pretty impressive. Further, notice the adjectives “great,” “lush,” and “graceful,” the positive noun “paradise,” and the verbs “swoop,” “amble,” and “cavort,” which evoke an Edenic portrait of the natural landscape.
The author’s attitude, in short, is purely positive. Thus, we can quickly eliminate C, D, and E. We can also eliminate A for a different reason. It would be wrong to say that the author is “proud” of Iguacu Falls; after all, he doesn’t take credit for its beauty. B is the best answer.
Remember, don’t try to project a positive or negative tone where one does not exist. If the tone is completely neutral, make sure you answer accordingly.