What is “tone”?

“Don’t talk to me in that tone young lady.”

If you overhear this, you know before you turn to look that a teenager has been sassing her parent. We know what tone means when we speak, and we all know how to adjust our tone to make a simple phrase like “you’re welcome” be sincere or sarcastic. How does one convey tone in writing? Consider the following:

You are most welcome!
Actually, you are welcome.
Yea sure, like I said, you’re welcome, I guess.
I said you’re welcome already!

These examples move from most to the least sincere by using punctuation, sentence structure, and descriptive words like “most” and “already” and qualifying words like “actually” and “I guess” to convey tone. Note that the exclamation point in the first sentence works to convey the strengths of the feeling of gratitude, while it works in the last sentence to convey an angry and brusque response. The sentence structure in the second and third sentences delays the actual “you’re welcome” and so creates a sense of reluctance.

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