Tactics for Understanding Tone in PSAT/NMSQT Reading-Comprehension Questions

You’ll need to pay attention to tone in the reading-comprehension sections of the PSAT/NMSQT. Tone is the way the author’s voice sounds in your head, as in “Don’t take that tone with me, young lady.” You can “hear” the passage correctly if you follow these steps:

  • Notice diction. Diction is an English-teacher term for word choice. The difference between a silly and a stupid trick, for example, is huge. The first hints at “isn’t she cute,” and the other leans toward the “you could’ve been killed!” direction. As you read, underline unusual words and those that create a strong impression. They indicate tone.

  • Pay attention to syntax. Another English-teacher term! Syntax is the way in which parts of the sentence fit together grammatically.

    Don’t panic; you don’t have to identify parts of speech or label clauses. Just listen to the voice in your head as you read the passage. Are the sentences long and complicated? Short and punchy? Do they give orders or simply lay out information? Answering these questions gives you other clues about the tone of a passage.

  • Don’t ignore content. If the passage explains how rare elements are crucial to building cell phones and computers, you’re getting information. If you see statements of opinion or recollections (memories), you know that the author has written an argument or a memoir. Still more clues to tone!

  • Put everything together and choose an answer. After you’ve nailed diction, syntax, and content, you should be ready to pick an answer. Look for something that fits. A passage that recounts (tells) happy memories may be nostalgic; one that complains may be antagonistic (opposing strongly) or bitter.

Tone questions sometimes are the easiest in the pack, because you may recognize the tone on the first read-through. Don’t spend too much time on a tone question if you’re really puzzled or if the answer choices are words you don’t understand. Follow the guessing rule: if you can cross one off, take a guess.

The PSAT/NMSQT always gives you a full passage when it asks about tone. In the interest of space, instead of giving you a lengthy excerpt, this practice just supplies a sentence or two from three different works, along with five possible words to characterize the tone of the sentence(s). Get your reading muscles in shape with Questions 1 through 3:

  1. Identify the tone of this sentence:

    The stagnant thinking of those committee members is reflected in the lack of originality in their proposal.

        (A)    reflective
        (B)    didactic
        (C)    informative
        (D)    sympathetic
        (E)    critical
  2. Identify the tone of this passage:

    On hot summer nights his family drove to the local ice cream stand, where, for just a few minutes, nothing mattered but the cold, sweet treat. No dessert, before or since, was as delicious as a double-dip cone eaten while he balanced on a log behind the parking lot.

        (A)    nostalgic
        (B)    biting
        (C)    irreverent
        (D)    cynical
        (E)    satirical
  3. Identify the tone in this passage:

    All registered cyclists have passed an examination covering traffic rules and safety. Those interested in the new BikeShare Program must register their bicycles and provide a major credit card to ensure payment. Call 555-1212 for more information.

        (A)    argumentative
        (B)    sentimental
        (C)    idealistic
        (D)    informative
        (E)    caustic

Now check your answers:

  1. E. critical

    A good vocabulary is the key to this question. Something that’s stagnant never moves or changes, and no one ever wants to be accused of “stagnant thinking” or a “lack of originality.” Therefore, Choice (E) works perfectly. A bit of vocabulary: reflective is the “I’m thinking” tone, and a didactic tone is what you hear from people, especially teachers, who sometimes sound as if they know it all.

  2. A. nostalgic

    You’re strolling down a memory lane here, with no potholes in sight. Therefore, nostalgic (yearning for a happy moment in the past) is your answer. Take a second for vocabulary: a biting tone cuts and hurts, an irreverent one mocks something considered holy, and a cynical tone is distrustful and bitter. You’ve probably seen satirical comedy shows that specialize in ridicule.

  3. D. informative

    The passage is straightforward, giving you information without evaluating the content. Choice (D) is a perfect fit. Do you know the meaning of Choice (E)? A caustic tone drips acid all over the reader. You may hear a caustic tone during some arguments.

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