How to Interpret Variations in Meaning and Tone for the GED RLA

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

Being able to interpret variations in meaning and tone is part of doing well on the GED Reasoning Through Language Arts test. Using a thesaurus, you can look up most words and find words with similar meanings. However, these similar words typically differ to some degree in meaning and tone. For example, “afraid” and “cowardly” convey a similar meaning, but the latter has a more judgmental feel; you wouldn’t think of calling a child who’s afraid of the dark “cowardly.”

In your own writing, choose your words carefully and according to the following guidelines:

  • Use words deliberately and carefully for effect.

  • Use words that come naturally to the way you speak. Don’t make a forced effort to impress readers with sophisticated words.

  • As you practice writing outside of the testing environment, use a thesaurus and dictionary in tandem to find the word that most precisely expresses the desired meaning and tone.

Word choice for overall effect

Choosing the right words can have an amazing impact on the effectiveness of any writing. Read Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is a great example of using just the right words.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, to stand here, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

One rule of good writing is to keep the writing simple, but Lincoln ignores that rule. He uses the phrase “four score and seven years ago” when he could just have said “87 years ago.” It works because it sounds much deeper. The choice of wording is almost poetic, giving a rhythm to the reading of this speech.

Lincoln also uses contrast to make his points. Look how he writes that few will remember this speech but that what the soldiers did will be remembered forever. He repeats that when he writes that the audience can’t hallow (honor as holy) the ground of the battlefield; those who fought and died have done that. These contrasts create a powerful, emotional image.

Meaning and tone

Words have specific meanings, but authors often use words in a way that alters their meaning. This tendency is especially true in humorous, satirical writings and persuasive writings. Authors can use exaggeration or overuse words to create a different meaning or tone (overall point of view) in a written passage. To determine the tone and meaning of a passage, you need to read it carefully because meaning is often implied rather than stated. Here’s an example:

I just knew it was a great idea. Plunging head first into a canyon with a rubber band tied to my ankles had to be one of the greatest ideas I ever had. What could be more reasonable and logical than to trust my life to that silly little rubber band as the boulder-strewn bottom of the canyon approached and the wind ripped the screams from my throat?

Suddenly the rubber band grabbed tight. I felt a delicious feeling of security as those oh-so-lovely thick and reliable flexible steel cables brought me to a safe halt, and I gently bounced around, blissfully enjoying the magnificent canyon scenery.

Did the subject really think that it was reasonable and logical to trust a life to a “silly little rubber band”? Of course not. But note how the author uses words that have a specific meaning to convey a meaning opposite of the dictionary definition of the chosen words. Without specifically saying it, the author implies how the subject feels about his or her actions.

Tone isn’t the same as mood. Tone is the character of or attitude toward the subject or situation. Mood is how the passage makes the reader feel about the subject or situation.

How does tone of the passage change?

  • (A) from enthusiasm to terror

  • (B) from sarcasm to terror

  • (C) from sarcasm to contentment

  • (D) from enthusiasm to boredom

The subject is certainly not feeling any enthusiasm as the passage starts. The wording in fact creates the exact opposite feeling. That means Choices (A) and (D) are wrong. You can eliminate Choice (B) because nothing suggests the subject is still feeling terror at the end. That leaves Choice (C). The passage begins with sarcasm (ridiculing the narrator’s decision to bungee jump into a canyon) and ends with bliss and feelings of security (contentment). Choice (C) is your best option.