“The American Dream”

Part 3: Diction → Tone

Adapted from Nancy Dean’s Discovering Voice

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Learning Target: I will analyze an author’s use of diction.


Analyzing an author’s use of diction means being able to:

  • Find the interesting words.
  • Analyze the denotation and the connotation of those words.
  • Determine how those words contribute to the meaning.
  • Determine the tone of the piece.


Some Definitions:


Tone is the expression of the author’s attitude towards the audience and subject matter. Sometimes it can be the expression of the speaker or narrator’s attitude toward the listener or subject matter. It is the feeling that grows out of the material, the feeling that the writer creates for the reader.


Diction is the author’s choice of words. Words are the basic tools of the writer. Just as a painter uses color and light or a musician uses sounds and rhythm, a writer uses words. In order to write well, writers have to find the perfect word.


Detail is what makes writing come alive. Detail includes facts, observations, reasons, examples, and incidents that a writer uses to develop a subject. Specific details create a clear mental picture for the reader by focusing on particulars rather than abstractions. In other words, instead of saying, “I had a great time at the party,” good writers will fill their papers with the specifics of what made the party fun.


Detail helps to focus the reader’s attention on important ideas and shapes the reader’s understanding of a topic. Detail also shapes the reader’s understanding and view of a topic. Detail allows the reader to participate as an equal partner in the “world” the writer has created and to follow the writer’s ideas in the way the writer intends.


Practice #1


A redheaded woman was there with Trout. Kate could see her rummaging through the cabin, dumping drawers and knocking things from the shelves of cabinets.

– Louis Sachar, Holes


  1. What picture do you get in your mind when you read the second sentence?




  1. How would the meaning of the sentence change if we changed some of the words? For example: Kate could see her searching through the cabin, emptying drawers and taking things off of the shelves of cabinets.





  1. Write a sentence describing a small boy making a mess in a restaurant. Choose words that are clear, concrete, and exact.




  1. What is the tone of your sentence? (Does your word choice convey your attitude toward the boy?)





Practice #2


M.C. heard him scramble and strain his way up the slope of Sarah’s mountain.

– Virginia Hamilton, M. C. Higgins, the Great


  1. What does it mean to scramble and strain up a mountain? Close your eyes and try to get a picture of someone scrambling and straining up a mountain.





  1. How would it change your mental picture if we rewrote the sentence like this?

M.C. heard him walk up the slope of Sarah’s mountain.






  1. Write a sentence describing someone slowly climbing up a flight of stairs. Use Hamilton’s sentence as a model.






  1. What is the tone of your sentence? (Does your word choice convey your attitude toward the stairs?)






Practice #3


He spent hours in front of the mirror trying to herd his teething into place with his thumb. He asked his mother if he could have braces, like Frankie Molina, her godson, but he asked at the wrong time.

  • Gary Soto, “Broken Chain,” Baseball in April and Other Stories


  1. What is Soto implying about the narrator’s teeth when he uses the verb herd in the first sentence?






  1. Fill in the blank below with a strong verb that causes a clear picture in the reader’s mind like Soto does. Be creative!



She spent hours in front of the mirror trying to _______________ her hair in place for the party.






Practice #4


I used to like going to have my hair cut. I liked the mirrors in the room and all the smells of lotions and shampoos. I liked to sit there — young and fresh and pretty — and see what the women were having done, to make themselves look younger and prettier. I liked the way my mother’s hairdresser teased me about boyfriends and dances. Not anymore, though. Somebody held the door open so my mother could wheel me in, and a few people who had met me came around to say how sorry they were.

Cynthia Voigt, Izzy, Willy-Nilly


  1. Which details support the attitude that the narrator used to like having her hair cut? Underline those details. Below, analyze their effectiveness.








  1. Which detail changes the direction of the passage? Note that the narrator’s reason for not liking haircuts anymore is not explained. Nevertheless, you know what has happened. What effect does that have on the reader?







  1. Write three to four sentences using details to capture reasons why you like a particular sport. Don’t explain why you like the sport. Instead, use details to show the reader what you like about the sport.







Practice #5


When he ran, he even loved the pain, the hurt of the running, the burning in his lungs and the spasms that sometimes gripped his calves. He loved it because he knew he could endure the pain, and even go beyond it. He had never pushed himself to the limit but he felt all his reserve strength inside of him: more than strength actually — determination. And it sang in him as he ran, his heart pumping blood joyfully through his body.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War


  1. What is the main idea or focus of this paragraph? State it as simply as you can. How do the details in this paragraph support the main idea?









  1. The details in the first sentence describe the physical sensation of pain. The next three sentences, however, focus on another characteristic of pain. What is his other characteristic of pain? How do the details of the last three sentences help the reader understand the other characteristic of pain?










  1. Write a simple topic sentence about something you love to do. Then list all of the details you can think of that would help someone else understand why you love what you do. If your list is full of vivid details, a partner should easily be able to explain why you love what you do.


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