How to Determine the Author’s Tone on the GMAT

When reading through Reading Comprehension texts, there are a few important concepts to keep in mind in order to be able to swiftly answer the upcoming questions. Every passage will have explicit information regarding the subject matter at hand, but some information will come from the author’s attitude and writing style. One of the most important things to do while reading a Reading Comprehension passage (other than staying awake) is determine the author’s tone.

Much like how inflection plays an important role in speech, tone plays an understated role in determining the intent of the words written in front of you. If you recall the classic Seinfeld exchange between Jerry and Elaine regarding whether Jerry was invited to Tim Whatley’s party (who knew that the funny dentist would someday become Breaking Bad’s Walter White?): “Which word did he emphasize? Did he say, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” or, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” Which word did he emphasize? The difference can be as dramatic as whether he was invited at all or why he would bring anything because his presence (presents?) is gift enough. Tone is very similar on the GMAT, but without the added hint of intonation in speech.

Passages on the GMAT can be branded into three broad categories of tone: Explanatory, Analytical or Opinionated. Explanatory, which can also be considered descriptive, is characterized by an arm’s length relationship between the author and the topic. The author offers no opinion, suggestion or analysis of the issue at hand. (Think Morgan Freeman voice over). Analytical is the tone when the author wants to analyze a situation or topic. The tone won’t necessarily be overt, but it will be somewhat suggestive and may contain some subjective passages. Finally, the tone can be characterized as opinionated if the author is clearly presenting their opinion or evaluating a hypothesis.

Let’s look at a GMAT passage and answer a question using the tone as a guideline (note: this is the same passage I used in May for scope)

                Young Enterprise Services (YES) is a federal program created to encourage entrepreneurship in 14-18 year olds who have already shown a clear aptitude for starting business ventures. The program, started in 2002, has provided loans, grants, and counseling – in the form of workshops and individual meetings with established entrepreneurs – to over 7,500 young people. The future of YES, however, is now in jeopardy. A number of damaging criticisms have been leveled at the program, and members of the Congressional agency that provides the funding have suggested that YES may be scaled down or even dismantled entirely.

                One complaint is that the funds that YES distributes have disproportionally gone to young people from economically disadvantaged families, despite the program’s stated goal of being blind to any criteria besides merit. Though no one has claimed that any of the recipients of YES funds have been undeserving, several families have brought lawsuits claiming that their requests for funding were rejected because of the families’ relatively high levels of income. The resulting publicity was an embarrassment to the YES administrators, one of whom resigned.

                Another challenge has been the admittedly difficult task of ensuring that a young person, not his or her family, is truly the driving force behind the venture. The rules state that the business plan must be created by the youth, and that any profits in excess of $1,000 be placed in an escrow account that can only be used for education, investment in the venture, and little else, for a period that is determined by the age of the recipient. Despite this, several grants had to be returned after it was discovered that parents – or in one case, a neighbor – were misusing YES funds to promote their own business ideas. To make matters worse, the story of the returned monies was at first denied by a YES spokesperson who then had to retract the denial, leading to more bad press.

                In truth, YES has had some real success stories. A 14-year old girl in Texas used the knowledge and funding she received through the program to connect with a distributor who now carries her line of custom-designed cell phone covers. Two brothers in Alaska have developed an online travel advisory service for young people vacationing with their families. Both of these ventures are profitable, and both companies have gained a striking amount of brand recognition in a very short time. However, YES has been pitifully lax in trumpeting these encouraging stories. Local press notwithstanding, these and other successes have received little media coverage. This is a shame, but one that can be remedied. The administrators of YES should heed the advice given in one of the program’s own publications: “No business venture, whatever its appeal, will succeed for long without an active approach to public relations.”

The author of the passage would most likely describe YES as a _______

A)     Failed enterprise that is beyond repair

B)      Noble effort that has been hampered by external factors

C)      Limited success that can be improved through greater fiscal responsibility

D)     Potentially worthy program that has been mismanaged

E)      Waste of public resources that should never have received funding

Before diving into the question, let’s analyze the author’s tone and try and determine which of the three major categories it should fall into (explanatory, analytical, opinionated). It should be fairly clear that this passage isn’t explanatory: the author often interjects his opinion (“YES should…”) and uses personal opinion liberally (“this is a shame…”). Furthermore, the fourth paragraph reads like the conclusion of an opinionated editorial in the newspaper: “YES should heed the advice given in one of the program’s own publications”. The author clearly believes strongly in the advice he’s dispensing. This passage should be categorized as opinionated, as the author certainly doesn’t shy away from presenting his thoughts on YES’ current predicament.

Looking again at the question, the author of the passage would likely describe YES as some kind of program with a good idea that hasn’t executed properly. Answer choice A contradicts the entire point of the fourth paragraph wherein the author lays out his plan to save the program. Answer choice E also takes it way too far and is borderline hateful. Neither of these options captures the author’s tone, or as I say, they’re tone-deaf.  Thus, we can easily eliminate them.

Answer choices B, C and D all speak of how the program is okay but has had some troubles, so let’s examine them one by one. Answer choice B mentions that this noble effort has been hampered by external factors, which is incorrect. All the problems illustrated have been internal factors. It wasn’t the government, the economy or the Republic of Wadiya that have caused problems; it was the administrators and management within the company. This leads us towards answer choice D, which is roughly analogous to B with the word “external” being replaced by “internal”.

What about answer choice C, though? The limited success part seems correct, but again the reasoning that greater fiscal responsibility will resolve the underlying issues is unsupported by the text. The author meticulously made the case that management needs to respect their own criteria and work at improving their public relations image. The financial side of the business never really came up, so it won’t help atone (see what I did there?) for the poor choices that have been made in the past. Answer C can be eliminated, leaving only answer choice D, which already seemed like the correct response.

When it comes to reading comprehension, it’s important to understand the words written on the page, but also to pay attention to the author’s tone. Often questions concerning tone won’t ask you to regurgitate information written on the left-hand side of the screen, but rather to make a classification of the author’s opinion or thoughts. When such questions arise, understanding the author’s tone helps you a ton.

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Ron Awad is a GMAT instructor for Veritas Prep based in Montreal, bringing you weekly advice for success on your exam.  After graduating from McGill and receiving his MBA from Concordia, Ron started teaching GMAT prep and his Veritas Prep students have given him rave reviews ever since.