GMAT Gurus Speak Out: 4 Tips to Master Tone and Style

You’ve probably seen a GMAT 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 GMAT. The first step to tackling them is to make sure you did some solid note-taking on your first read of the passage. 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.  Use 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.  Pre-phrase an answer on your own first. 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 GMAT 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.

3.  Think positive (or negative)! Use the descriptive words of the passage as your prediction, or even a simple positive (+) or negative (-) sign. 100% of GMAT passages can be classified as one of the following based on the author’s general attitude towards his topic. Start by classifying the tone in a “general” was as one of these six options, then get more specific as the question requires:

  • 100% positive
  • Mostly positive, some negative
  • 50/50, or “ambivalent”
  • Mostly negative, some positive
  • 100% negative
  • Neutral/scholarly

4.  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 where you get into the nitty-gritty of GMAT passages. 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 tone of the passage, go with the more “middle-of-the-road” word (i.e. “dislike”). Most GMAT passages are academic and technical, not overly emotional, so it’s best to error on the more restrained choice.

Remember to keep your focus on analyzing the passage and the question-stem, and rephrasing and interpreting information on your own first before you dive into the answer choices!

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Vivian Kerr is a regular contributor to the Veritas Prep blog, providing tips and tricks to help students better prepare for the GMAT and the SAT.