Coupon Accepted Successfully!


Tone Questions

Tone questions ask you to identify the writer’s attitude or perspective. Is the writer’s feeling toward the subject positive, negative, or neutral? Does the writer give his own opinion, or does he objectively present the opinions of others?

Strategy: Before you read the answer-choices, decide whether the writer’s tone is positive, negative, or neutral. It is best to do this without referring to the passage.

However, if you did not get a feel for the writer’s attitude on the first reading, check the adjectives that he chooses. Adjectives and, to a lesser extent, adverbs express our feelings toward subjects. For instance, if we agree with a person who holds strong feelings about a subject, we may describe his opinions as impassioned. On the other hand, if we disagree with him, we may describe his opinions as excitable, which has the same meaning as “impassioned” but carries a negative connotation.


The author’s attitude toward the adversarial system can best be described as

  1. encouraged that it is far removed from the system of private vengeance
  2. concerned that it does not allow all members of society to instigate legal action
  3. pleased that it does not require the defendant to conduct his own pretrial investigation
  4. hopeful that it will be replaced by the inquisitorial system
  5. doubtful that it is the best vehicle for justice

The author does not reveal his feelings toward the adversarial system until the end of paragraph one. Clearly the clause “the adversarial system of criminal procedure symbolizes and regularizes the punitive combat” indicates that he has a negative attitude toward the system. This is confirmed in the second paragraph when he states that the inquisitorial system is historically superior to the adversarial system. So he feels that the adversarial system is deficient.


The “two-out-of-five” rule is at work here: only choices (D) and (E) have any real merit. Both are good answers. But which one is better? Intuitively, choice (E) is more likely to be the answer because it is more measured. To decide between two choices attack each: the one that survives is the answer. Now a tone question should be answered from what is directly stated in the passage—not from what it implies. Although the author has reservations toward the adversarial system, at no point does he say that he hopes the inquisitorial system will replace it, he may prefer a third system over both. This eliminates (D); the answer therefore is (E).


The remaining choices are not supported by the passage. (A), using the same language as in the passage, overstates the author’s feeling. In the first paragraph, he states that the adversarial system is only one step removed from the private vengeance system—not far removed. Remember: Be wary of extreme words. (A) would be a better choice if “far” were dropped. (B) makes a false claim. The author states that the author states that the adversarial system does extend the right to initiate legal action to all members of society.


Finally, (C) also makes a false claim. The author states that the defendant in the adversarial system is still left to conduct his own pretrial investigation.

Application: (Mini-passage)

An elm in our backyard caught the blight this summer and dropped stone dead, leafless, almost overnight. One weekend it was a normal-looking elm, maybe a little bare in spots but nothing alarming, and the next weekend it was gone, passed over, departed, taken....

The dying of a field mouse, at the jaws of an amiable household cat, is a spectacle I have beheld many times. It used to make me wince.... Nature, I thought, was an abomination.

Recently I’ve done some thinking about that mouse, and I wonder if his dying is necessarily all that different from the passing of our elm. The main difference, if there is one, would be in the matter of pain. I do not believe that an elm tree has pain receptors, and even so, the blight seems to me a relatively painless way to go. But the mouse dangling tail-down from the teeth of a gray cat is something else again, with pain beyond bearing, you’d think, all over his small body. There are now some plausible reasons for thinking it is not like that at all.... At the instant of being trapped and penetrated by teeth, peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland; instantly these substances, called endorphins, are attached to the surfaces of other cells responsible for pain perception; the hormones have the pharmacologic properties of opium; there is no pain. Thus it is that the mouse seems always to dangle so languidly from the jaws, lies there so quietly when dropped, dies of his injuries without a struggle. If a mouse could shrug, he’d shrug....
Pain is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time to get away, but when it is end game, and no way back, pain is likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully precise and quick. If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensable part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.
From Lewis Thomas, On Natural Death, © 1979 by Lewis Thomas.


Which one of the following would best characterize the author’s attitude toward the relationship between pain and death?

  1. Dismay at the inherent cruelty of nature
  2. Amusement at the irony of the relationship between pain and death
  3. Admiration for the ways in which animal life functions in the ecosystem
  4. A desire to conduct experiments on animals in order to discover more about the relationship between pain and death

The author’s attitude toward the relationship between pain and death evolves through three stages. First, he expresses revulsion at the relationship. This is indicated in the second paragraph by the words “wince” and “abomination.” Then in the third paragraph, he adopts a more analytical attitude and questions his previous judgment. This is indicated by the clause, “I wonder if his dying is necessarily all that different from the passing of our elm.” And in closing the paragraph, he seems resigned to the fact the relationship is not all that bad.  This is indicated by the sentence, “If a mouse could shrug, he’d shrug.” Finally, in the last paragraph, he comes to express admiration for the relationship between pain and death.  This is indicated by the phrase wonderfully precise and quick,” and it is made definite by the closing line, “If I had to design an ecosystem . . . in which dying was an indispensable part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”


Thus, the answer is (C).

The other choices are easily ruled out.  Choice (A) is perhaps superficially tempting.  In the second paragraph the author does express dismay at the ways of nature, but notice that his concerns are in the past tense.  He is now more understanding, wiser of the ways of nature.  As to (B), the author is subtly reverential, never ironical, toward nature.  Finally, (D) is not mentioned or alluded to in the passage.


Beware of answer-choices that contain extreme emotions. Remember the passages are taken from academic journals. In the rarefied air of academic circles, strong emotions are considered inappropriate and sophomoric. The writers want to display opinions that are considered and reasonable, not spontaneous and off-the-wall. So if an author’s tone is negative, it may be disapproving—not snide. Or if her tone is positive, it may be approving—not ecstatic.
Furthermore, the answers must be indisputable. If the answers were subjective, then the writers of the SAT would be deluged with letters from angry test takers, complaining that their test-scores are unfair. To avoid such a difficult position, the writers of the SAT never allow the correct answer to be either controversial or grammatically questionable.
Let’s use these theories to answer the following questions.

Which one of the following most accurately characterizes the author’s attitude with respect to Phillis Wheatley’s literary accomplishments?

  1. enthusiastic advocacy
  2. qualified admiration
  3. dispassionate impartiality
  4. detached ambivalence
  5. perfunctory dismissal

Even without reference to the passage, this is not a difficult question to answer.


Scholars may advocate each other’s work, but they are unlikely to be enthusiastic advocates. Furthermore, the context stretches the meaning of advocacy—to defend someone else’s cause or plight. So (A) is unlikely to be the answer.


(B) is the measured response and therefore is probably the answer.


“Dispassionate impartiality” is a rather odd construction; additionally, it is redundant. It could never be the answer to an SAT question. This eliminates (C).


“Detached ambivalence” is not as odd as “dispassionate impartiality,” but it is unusual. So (D) is unlikely to be the answer.


Remember, scholars want their audience to consider their opinions well thought out, not off-the-wall. But perfunctory means “hasty and superficial.” So (E) could not be the answer.
Hence, even without the passage we can still find the answer, (B).


Which one of the following best describes the author’s attitude toward scientific techniques?

  1. critical
  2. hostile
  3. idealistic
  4. neutral
  5. ironic

(A) is one of two measured responses offered. Now a scholar may be critical of a particular scientific technique, but only a crackpot would be critical of all scientific techniques—eliminate (A).


“Hostile” is far too negative. Scholars consider such emotions juvenile—eliminate (B).
“Idealistic,” on the other hand, is too positive; it sounds pollyannaish—eliminate (C).
“Ironic” seems illogical in this context. It’s hard to conceive of a person having an ironic attitude toward scientific techniques—eliminate (D).

(E) is the other measured response, and by elimination it is the answer.

Test Your Skills Now!
Take a Quiz now
Reviewer Name