CAT Prep: Irony, Satire or Narrative: Whats the tone of passage?

| 26, Sep 2013 0145IST

This Expert article gives you some tips and guidelines to detect the Tone or attitude of the Author in the passage. This is one of the most regular featured questions of Reading Comprehension in Verbal Ability Section of CAT 2013.
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CAT- 2012 had at least two questions in every session on tone of the passage in Reading Comprehension section of Verbal Ability. What are the key words and sentences that would help you to detect the tone of the author?

How important is to identify the tone of the author in the passage, can be well understood by the fact that CAT- 2012 had at least two questions in every session on tone of the passage in Reading Comprehension section of Verbal Ability. What are the key words and sentences that would help you to detect the tone of the author?  Are you aware getting these questions answered correct, could give you an edge of 12-14 percentile? So get some tips and guidelines to detect the Tone or attitude of the Author in the passage.

The tone is supposed to be understood after going through the entire passage, since the writing piece might have more than one tones or the tone may vary after one or two paragraphs, although a careful reader may find out the tone in the beginning itself.

What are different ‘tones’ and how to identify?

Irony conveys a meaning that is the opposite of the actual meaning.  Ironic statements bring attention to words and phrases and show the difference between an ideal and an actual condition.

Sarcasm is harsh or may be described as bitter irony.

Satire uses sarcasm or irony to make fun of something.

Analytical – the tone goes on analyzing the facts with author’s opinion added to it

Descriptive – Description of an event –which may lead to inculcate interest among the readers and with description the piece of writing may lead to form the opinion in optimistic, pessimistic manner.

Narrative – In fact it is simply narration of events without any tone of description or analysis e.g. as the news readers simply narrate the items of news. 

Objective -The author’s attitude is expressed through the words and details he or she selects. For example, textbooks are usually written with an objective tone which includes facts and reasonable explanations.  The objective tone is matter-of-fact and neutral.  The details are mostly facts. 

Subjective - On the other hand, fiction and personal essays are usually written with a subjective tone.  A subjective tone uses words that describe feelings, judgments, or opinions.  The details are likely to include experiences, senses, feelings, and thoughts.

Objective tone is impartial- It does not show any feelings for or against a topic; therefore, it is unbiased or neutral.  Often objective tone uses higher level words and avoids pronouns such as I and you, creating a formal tone.  Subjective tone is personal, biased, emotional, and often informal. Tone is expressed through the words and details the author selects.  To determine the author’s tone, the reader must notice how these words and details are used within the writing.

Key points to understand

Writers use words to set the tone. A passage with a dark, ominous tone will probably have more negative descriptions than a light, happy comedy. A passage with a suspenseful, adventurous tone will probably have lots of short sentences and brief, matter-of-fact descriptions. A sad, romantic one will often have long, detailed, sentimental descriptions. Try to visualize the scene and hear the abstract characters voices as you read, and you'll be able to pick out the tone in no time. Depending on the viewpoint you form, the voice that speaks will develop a particular tone. Tone is a reflection of the writer's attitude, manner, mood, or morality, and often reflects his or her personality.

A.    The tone of a humorous story could be sarcastic or satiric.

B.     A letter to the editor noting a strong disagreement with a community issue could be scornful.

C.    A memoir could focus on a surprising situation and be ironic.

Tone in writing is Similar to tone in voice

Detecting the tone of an article or passage is similar to picking up on tone of voice.  It's not what is being said or done — it's a matter of how. According to the literary terms , tone is "the manner in which an author expresses his or her attitude; the intonation of the voice that expresses meaning. Tone is described by adjectives, and the possibilities are nearly endless. Often a single adjective will not be enough, and tone may change from paragraph to paragraph or even sentence to sentence. Tone is the result of allusion, diction, figurative language, imagery, irony, symbol, syntax, style, and so on."

Visualise it

One trick that may help to figure out the tone of the passage is to imagine a key scene from the story as a movie. Do you imagine something dark and moody, sombre and thoughtful? It might click to visualise the tone.

Key words to understand the tone

Read and understand various adjectives describing different tones. A few of the Keys words are given below to give the aspirants the first hand understanding of the tone in accordance to the mood in the sentences and paragraphs of the passage:

Absurd- silly, ridiculous;  ambivalent- undecided, having mixed emotions, unsure;  Amused- entertained, finding humor, expressed by a smile or laugh;  Angry - enraged, very mad, incensed, threatening or menacing;  Apathetic- lacking concern, showing little or no interest;  Arrogant- haughty, acting with false superiority;  Bitter- resentful, having strong animosity or rancor;  Cheerful- jovial, happy, in good spirits;  Comic -humorous, funny;  Compassionate- sympathetic, having feeling for others, showing pity, empathy Complex- complicated, having many varying characteristics; Condescending- patronizing, stooping to the level of one’s inferiors;  Critical- disapproving;  Cruel- causing suffering, causing pain;  Cynical -scornful of the motives or virtues of others, bitterly mocking; Depressed dejected, sad, unhappy, troubled;  Detached - uninvolved, having no interest or feelings, objective;  Distressed- upset;  Earnest sincere- showing deep feeling, seriousness;  Formal- accepting rules, stiff, using textbook style, factual and so on.

Sentences with different writing tones

Each of the following statements expresses different attitudes about a shabby apartment. Six different tones are used: optimistic, bitter, tolerant, sentimental, humorous, and objective.

1. This place may be shabby, but since both of my children were born while we lived here, it has a special place in my heart. (The tone is sentimental. “It has a special place in my heart,” expresses tender emotions.)

2. This isn’t the greatest apartment in the world, but it’s not really that bad. (The tone is tolerant. The words “not really that bad” show that the writer accepts the situation while recognizing that it could be better.)

3. If only there were some decent jobs out there, I wouldn’t be reduced to living in this miserable dump. (The tone is bitter. The writer resents a situation that forces him or her to live in a “miserable dump.”)

4. This place does need some repairs, but I’m sure the landlord will be making improvements sometime soon. (The tone is optimistic. The writer is expecting the apartment to be improved soon.)

5. When we move away, we’re planning to release three hundred cockroaches and tow mice, so we can leave the place exactly as we found it. (The tone is humorous. The writer claims to be planning a comic revenge on the landlord by returning the apartment to the terrible condition it was in when the tenants moved in.)

6. This is the apartment we live in. It provides shelter. (The tone is objective. The writer does not express feelings about the apartment. He simply states facts.)

Final Tip

Read regularly the articles and editorials in newspaper and periodicals. Whether you are reading George Bernard Shaw or Evelyn Waugh – the tone is the one that you are supposed to understand. An aspirant is strongly advised to make use of the scratch sheet provided in the examination hall and write down the keys words indicating the tone in each paragraph. By the time the passage is over, he or she will be fairly equipped to answer not only the question regarding the tone of the passage but also other questions based on the passage.

You may expect two questions in the RC section of Verbal Ability on Tone of the Author in the passage. If you get the tone right, your percentile is up by 12-14 if not it is down by more than that. So you be the judge.

The author of this article Mr S K Agarwal is a CAT Expert, a seasoned CAT trainer with over 25 years of experience, & author of many CAT books. He also guides Verbal Ability Section to CAT Aspirants through online coaching classes. offers a comprehensive preparation package coupled with over 200 online interactive classes with Top CAT experts including from IIMs CAT 2013 preparation

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