You’ve probably seen an SAT question that looked like this:
The author’s tone in the passage can best be described as:
Questions that ask about tone and style may not be as common as Detail or Inference questions, but they often come up on the SAT. The first step to tackle them, is to make sure you did your note-taking on your first reading of the passage (you can check out an article I wrote on note-taking for passages here: How To Deal with One Long Passage).
In that article, I discussed the importance of paying attention to the author’s point of view and to note the places in the passage where the author reveals his/her opinion. After all that work, now is the time for the payoff!
Unlike detail questions, there are no line numbers to help you find the answer for tone/style questions. Only by paying attention to the author’s voice and style as you read will you be able to get these questions right.
Now let’s talk strategy. What to do if you encounter a tone/style question:
1. Refer back to your passage notes. Ask yourself, what does the author like and what does he dislike? It’s important to note that while the author will have opinions, they may not be obvious. The passages are often scholarly and balanced in tone, so you must look carefully at the adjectives and adverbs (and the descriptive phrases) to find the places where the author reveals his opinion. Think of yourself like a detective looking for clues. They may be subtle, but they are definitely there.
2. Make a prediction. Don’t even think about reading those answer choices until you come up with your own prediction. If you’re tempted, cover up the choices with your hand. The SAT Reading section is testing your ability to think critically, and you must remember that the answer choices are not there to help you. Once you read them, you’ll never get them out of your head. Use the descriptive words of the passage as your prediction, or even a simple positive (+) or negative (-) sign.
3. Eliminate answers that don’t match your prediction. Trust that you’ve done your homework and that you know what the answer should be. Got more than one answer left after eliminating? Here is when you get into the nitty-gritty of SAT Passage-based Reading. You may encounter two words with very similar meanings, for example “dislike” and “despise.” How do they differ? Is one of them overly emotional, informal, or extreme? Unless it’s truly appropriate to the passage, go with the more “middle-of-the-road” word. In this case it would be “dislike.” The tone of most SAT passages is academic and technical, not emotional.