How to Identify Attitude and Tone in SAT Reading Passages

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

An attitude in an SAT reading passage goes way beyond the “don’t take that attitude [or tone] with me” comment that parents repeat with depressing regularity. In SAT jargon, an attitude or tone can be critical, objective, indifferent, and so forth. The following clue words may pop up in the answer choices:

  • Pro, positive, in favor of, leaning toward, laudatory (praising), agreeable, amenable (willing to go along with), sympathetic. The author is for a particular topic or argument.

  • Doubtful, offended, anti, resistant to, contrary to, counter to, adversarial (acting like an enemy), opposed, skeptical, critical of, disgusted with. The author is against a particular topic or argument.

  • Objective, indifferent, noncommittal, impartial, apathetic (not caring), unbiased, ambivalent (can’t decide either way or has mixed feelings). The author is neutral on a particular topic or argument.

To answer an attitude question, first decide where the author lands — for, against, or neutral — in relation to the topic. Check for clue words that express approval or disapproval.

A variation of the attitude question asks you to identify the author’s tone. Tone and attitude overlap a little, but tone is closer to what you’d hear if the passage were the words of someone speaking directly to you. You can use most of the same clues you use for attitude to help you figure out the author’s tone. Just remember that tone questions include emotions, so check for irony, amusement, nostalgia, regret, and sarcasm.

In paired passages, you often run into questions comparing tone or attitude, such as

In comparison with Passage I, Passage II is more . . .

The author of Passage II would probably agree with the author of Passage I regarding . . .

To answer such a question, determine the tone or attitude separately and then compare the two. Be sure to read the question stem (the part preceding the multiple-choice answers) especially carefully. Words such as more or less really matter in comparisons!

Take a crack at this attitude question, based on an excerpt from a story by Virginia Woolf.

Sample Passage

“Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily,” he thought. “We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I begged her to marry me all through the hot afternoon. How the dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say: the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe. And my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly; for some reason I thought that if it settled there, on that leaf, she would say ‘Yes’ at once. But the dragonfly went round and round: it never settled anywhere — of course not, happily not, or I shouldn’t be walking here with Eleanor and the children.”

  1. In this passage, the speaker’s attitude may best be characterized as

    (A) mocking

    (B) confused

    (C) nostalgic

    (D) argumentative

In this paragraph, the speaker looks at the past, remembering an afternoon when he “begged” (Sentence 1) a woman to accept his marriage proposal. He’s nostalgic (feeling pleasure and yearning for something in the past) so Choice (C) is correct. The yearning, which contains a hint of sadness, shows in Lily’s refusal, which he now sees “happily” (Final sentence).