Tone and Function Questions
Tone and Function questions are some of the hardest questions on the SAT reading section. Here we tell you how to tackle the tone and function questions on the SAT Reading section.
March 19, 2020
Tone questions look like the following:
- What is the author’s tone when he says X?
- What can we infer in the attitude of the author when he talks about snakes?
- Based on X or Y, we can assume that the author believes that…
- In lines 58-73, the description of the ocean floor primarily serves to…
- The author invokes “Cthulhu the destroyer” chiefly in order to…
While not all of these problems contain the word tone, they address a central idea: not what’s being said but how it’s being said.
For example, let’s say that you lived in a city that got over 100 inches of snow last winter. Just as you finished clearing snow out of the gutters, it started snowing again, prompting you to sing, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” as you smiled through gritted teeth.
The MEANING of the words “most wonderful” in this context would be “worst” (as in “It’s the worst time of the year”); the FUNCTION of the words “most wonderful” would be “to suggest that the speaker actually feels the opposite is true.”
Tone problems can be frustrating, but there’s an easy way to master them. Once you understand the proper way to think about tone problems, you’ll actually look forward to answering them.
The secret is to remember that tone-related questions address how something is being said and not what is literally being said. In other words, stop thinking about the content, and start thinking about the context.
These problems seem tricky because they refer to text in a passage that may state one thing but mean something else.
As an example, consider the following passage written by Stanton, a feminist advocating for woman’s voting rights, in 1890. It may look familiar.
“For thousands of years, women were not given their basic right to vote in the United States. It’s only in the recent decade that many northern states have started to pass legislature legally allowing women to vote, and this change is primarily due to female activists.”
Now, while the content is upsetting and the tone could be interpreted as angry, this passage is actually just factual. The question could be something like:
The best word to describe the tone of the author is:
Options A, B, and C all seem tempting because a feminist writer probably is outraged that women were subjected to such inequality for such a long period of time. But is the tone of this passage actually outraged or hurt or indignant? NO! This passage is simply laying out facts. The answer is D it’s factual!
One more trick to answer tone questions is to ask yourself where you would find such a text. This question is incredibly helpful.
For instance, if you say an academic or history journal, then you would expect the tone to be factual or informative. If you’d find it in a comedy magazine, it’ll probably be ironic or humorous. If you’d find it in a furious letter to the editor, it’ll probably be outraged or indignant. Just ask yourself this question, and the answer will usually fall into place.
Another easy way to answer tone questions is to start by determining whether the author’s tone or attitude is positive or negative. If it is positive, you can automatically eliminate any negative answers and vice-versa. Sometimes, you’re left with the correct answer using that trick alone. Other times, you may be able to eliminate at least two out of the four answer choices.
As a general rule, “extreme” answers to tone questions are usually incorrect, while correct answers are more reasonable. Thus, if an author’s attitude is positive, the answer is more likely to be approving or appreciative than awed; if the author’s attitude is negative, the answer is more likely to be skeptical or dubious than angry; and if an author uses strong language, the answer is likely to be a more neutral word such as emphatic or decisive.
You should be particularly careful with science passages, however. In science, especially, it is important not to confuse a dry or objective tone with an absence of opinion or point of view. SAT passages are, for all intents and purposes, not just recitations of factual information but rather chosen because they contain some sort of argument. More precisely, passages frequently contain the “old idea vs. new idea” structure in which the author first discusses a prevailing theory, then at a certain point turns around and describes a new theory. While there will undoubtedly be indications that the author rejects the former and embraces the latter, the overall tone may remain fairly neutral when discussing both.
Let’s start with a more straightforward example, though:
The so-called machine-learning approach...links several powerful software techniques that make it possible for the robot to learn new tasks rapidly with a relatively small amount of training. The new approach includes a powerful artificial intelligence technique known as “deep learning,” which has previously been used to achieve major advances in both computer vision and speech recognition. Now the researchers have found that it can also be used to improve the actions of robots working in the physical world on tasks that require both machine vision and touch.
In this passage, the author’s positive tone is revealed in a number of words and phrases:
- make it possible
- powerful artificial intelligence technique
- major advances
- improve the actions
Taken together, all of these elements indicate that the author considers this technology important and holds it in very high regard. His tone, however, is relatively restrained. He does not say that that this technology is “extraordinary,” nor does he say that it is the “most important” invention ever. His tone, therefore, could be characterized as appreciative or approving.
Important: As with all other SAT Reading Test questions, you will still be able to find clear evidence in the passage to confirm the correct answer.
The SAT designs incorrect answer choices based on common assumptions in the real world that aren’t actually stated in the passage. So no matter what, always find evidence in the passage for your answer.
Often there are many characters in SAT passages, each with their own respective opinions and thoughts. Therefore, always start by reading the question to figure out what is being asked. Check whose tone or attitude you’re focused on. Always do the following:
- Figure out what the question is asking: whose perspective about what?
- Look for words in the passage that point to the person’s feelings or mood
- If the tone is positive or negative, eliminate answer choices that obviously don’t match
- Test remaining choices by relying on synonyms or closely related phrases in the passage
During the years I spent in the company of Alexander Graham Bell, at work on his biography, I often wondered what the inventor of the world’s most important acoustical device, the telephone, might have sounded like. Born in Scotland in 1847, Bell, at different periods of his life, lived in England, then Canada and, later, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. His favorite refuge was Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where he spent the summers from the mid-1880s. In his day, 85 percent of the population there conversed in Gaelic. Did Bell speak with a Scottish burr? What was the pitch and depth of the voice with which he loved to belt out ballads and music hall songs? Someone who knew that voice was his granddaughter, Mabel Grosvenor, a noted Washington, D.C. pediatrician who retired in 1966. In 2004, I met with Dr. Mabel, as she was known in the family, when she was 99 years old—clearheaded, dignified and a bit fierce. I inquired whether her grandfather had an accent. “He sounded,” she said firmly, “like you.” As a British born immigrant to Canada, my accent is BBC English with a Canadian overlay: It made instant sense to me that I would share intonations and pronunciations with a man raised in Edinburgh who had resided in North America from the age of 23. When Dr. Mabel died in 2006, the last direct link with the inventor was gone.
1. Information in the first and second paragraphs (lines 1-18) indicates that the author’s attitude toward Alexander Graham Bell’s voice was one of:
Solution: The context of the passage is inquiring - the author wanted to know more - and therefore, the answer has to be curiosity, making D is the correct answer. If you wanted to play positive/negative, you could see the author’s attitude is somewhat positive and eliminate A and C on that basis, then eliminate B because nothing in the passage directly indicates that the author was amused.
“Come, come!” my mother urged us forward. It was the custom to greet the old. “Deborah!” my mother urged. Deborah stepped forward and took Ultima’s withered hand. “Buenos dias, Grande,” she smiled. She even bowed slightly. Then she pulled Theresa forward and told her to greet la Grande. My mother beamed. Deborah’s good manners surprised her, but they made her happy, because a family was judged by its members. “What beautiful daughters you have raised,” Ultima nodded to my mother. Nothing could have pleased my mother more. She looked proudly at my father who stood leaning against the truck, watching and judging the introductions. “Antonio,” he said simply. I stepped forward and took Ultima’s hand. I looked up into her clear brown eyes and shivered. Her face was old and wrinkled, but her eyes were clear and sparkling. “Antonio, she smiled. She took my hand, and I felt the power of a whirlwind sweep around me. Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river. My nostrils quivered as I felt the song of the mockingbirds and the drone of the grasshoppers mingle with the pulse of the earth. The four directions of the llano met in me, and the white sun shone on my soul. The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and sky above me seemed to dissolve into one being. A cry came to my throat, and I wanted to shout it and run in the beauty I had found
2. In the third paragraph (lines 23-38), Antonio reacts to Ultima with:
A. Scorn and indifference
B. Awe and amazement
C. Bashfulness and reluctance
D. Calm and resignation
Solution: The easiest way to approach the question is to play positive/negative. Antonio’s reaction to Ultima is positive: he sees the wild beauty of the hills and the magic of the green river, and the white sun shone on [his] soul. That eliminates options A and C, which are clearly negative. In D, calm is a possibility, but look at the second word: “resignation” means passive acceptance, usually of a bad situation, and that’s not happening here. In fact, Antonio wants to shout it and run in the beauty [he] had found. So D doesn’t work either. That leaves option B as the correct answer; awe and amazement both capture the intense sense of wonder Antonio feels upon meeting Ultima.
Solved Long Passages
The following passage is adapted from a 2014 article about the study of different kinds of diversity.
Most of us think of nature and culture as belonging to two separate domains. One contains items such as butterflies, the Amazon rainforest and photosynthesis; the other, things like wedding ceremonies, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and sushi. But in fact nature and culture - which we can think of as two great realms of diversity in which all the world’s differences are registered - often interpenetrate. These areas of overlap are now often described by a new term: biocultural diversity. We see the commonalities clearly when we look at two fundamental components of biological and cultural diversity: species and languages. Both evolve via a process of descent with modification, although cultural evolution is far more rapid than biological evolution. Both can be classified into closely related families that share a common ancestor. Both coincide geographically, with highest diversity in the tropics and lowest at the poles. And both are threatened with extinction on a scale never before seen in history. How deep is the threat to biocultural diversity? Analysis shows that at least 25 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages are threatened with extinction, compared with at least 30 percent of amphibians, 21 percent of mammals, 15 percent of reptiles and 13 percent of birds. A new Index of Linguistic Diversity captures the recent general trend in which a few of the world’s largest languages are “cornering the market” as speakers shift away from smaller ones. When we superimpose the global trend line of the new index upon that of the Living Planet Index, a well-respected measure of the rate at which biodiversity is declining, the result is astonishing: They track one another almost perfectly, with both falling about 30 percent between 1970 and 2009. Why is this happening? The ultimate reason is globalization. We now live in a world where the dominant economic and political forces are aligned to encourage uniformity and the seamless global interchange of products and information. Government policies generally favor developing resources for human use, which simplifies the landscape as it destroys wild animal and plant habitats. Similar policies promote linguistic unification either directly, through sanctions on minority language use, or indirectly, such as by concentrating economic opportunities in cities, thereby making it more difficult for the rural areas in which most languages evolved to remain viable places for the next generation of speakers. The dual extinction crisis is actually a golden opportunity for new directions in conservation. If biodiversity organizations joined forces with advocates for linguistic and cultural self-determination, there would be a double payoff. Traditional ecological knowledge that has evolved over millennia among indigenous peoples living in a diversity of Earth’s ecosystems is being rapidly lost as the languages which encode that knowledge disappear. By working together with biologists, field linguists could help to maintain those cultural treasure troves. Conservation biologists could benefit from applying some of that traditional knowledge to their own work. By combining expertise, not only would biocultural diversity be conserved in the environments in which it evolved, but time-tested traditional environmental knowledge could be shared and adapted as appropriate to the wider landscape. Some of this is already happening. For example, a recent study by scientists in collaboration with Canada’s Taku River Tlingit First Nation used in-depth interviews with tribal members, each with many years’ experience closely observing woodland caribou, to develop a habitat model to help recover this endangered species. When compared with a model created using Western scientific methods alone, the First Nation model correctly identified the caribou’s preference for using frozen lakes as part of its winter habitat - an important nuance that was missed by the Western model. Knowledge of this kind is valuable for our understanding of wildlife ecology and management. The Tlingit language, however, is now spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and is critically endangered. This kind of cross-cutting conservation work is increasing, but much of what is going on is at the grass roots, far under the radar. From Montana to Mozambique, everyday people are dreaming dreams of a world whose differences are valued and protected. There are many powerful forces arrayed against the continuation of our planet’s natural and cultural creativity, and many of these same forces stand to benefit if the world’s cultures are homogenized. But on the other side of the equation is the cumulative power of millions of individuals who know that diversity in nature and culture is the genuine condition of life on Earth.
1. The author’s attitude is best described as
A. Conflicted outrage.
B. Ardent curiosity.
C. Sincere optimism.
D. Bewildered contempt.
2. The author believes the Tlingit First Nation to be
A. somewhat smarter than Western scientists.
B. more detail-oriented than Western scientists.
C. a minor inhibition to Western scientists.
D. an important resource to Western scientists.
3. The author views biological diversity and cultural diversity as
A. similar and intermingled.
B. important and thriving.
C. interesting but unrelated.
D. endangered but inessential.
A. The author describes some events as negative, but she does not express “outrage” or anger about them.
B. “Ardent” suggests extreme, passionate feelings, but the author’s tone seems more informational. “Curiosity” suggests that the author has questions, but the passage seems to be providing answers to the questions it presents.
C. This is the correct answer. Did you notice the phrases “actually a golden opportunity” and “already happening.” Did you notice in the last sentence that the author sees the “cumulative power of millions” on her side?
D. “Contempt” suggests that the author has strong negative feelings. The passage describes facts or events that she sees as negative, but her tone is descriptive, not confused or angry.
A. The passage does not discuss intelligence. The “comparison” is between two “models,” not the people.
B. The First Nation did find one nuance the Western scientists missed, but the passage doesn’t generalize this to say one group is more detail-oriented.
C. This answer has a negative connotation, while the passage discusses the Tlingit First Nation in positive terms.
D. This is the correct answer! The words “valuable” and “correctly identified” serve as evidence of this, along with the phrase “important nuance that was missed by the Western model.”
A. This is the correct answer! The first two paragraphs contain a number of comparisons that give evidence for this answer.
B. The author does view them as important, but says that they are both “threatened with extinction”—the opposite of “thriving.”
C. The first two paragraphs contain several comparisons showing that the two are very much related.
D. “Inessential” means not necessary, but the passage describes why it is important to conserve them. The author does not suggest that they are not important.