“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it!”
If you’ve ever thought about improving your writing, you’ve probably heard this phrase at one point or another. You may have also used to it to explain your reaction to a message, comment, or email from a friend. But what does it mean? What is the “how you say it” referring to?
Of course, the “how” could be referring to basic mechanics, conciseness, or your level of formality. But if you’ve sent a message and received an unexpected emotional response from the person on the end, it’s likely the “how” refers to your tone.
As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, tone is the attitude of your writing. It only works if you and the person you’re writing to have a shared understanding of the emotions underneath certain words and phrases. This “reading between the lines” allows you to communicate subtle emotional cues without needing to dedicate space to stating your feelings explicitly.
Tone is nuanced, culturally specific, and can be difficult to master. But there are a few common tone markers that are relatively constant across groups of people writing in English. Can you spot them all? Take this quiz to see how well your tone senses are working, and check your answers at the end, teen magazine-style. And if you don’t agree with a question—let us know! We want to hear what our readers think about emotions, tone, and choosing the right words to convey what you mean.
Question 1: Which word in this message communicates joy?
“Great job! Your delightful presentation this morning was a masterpiece.“
E. All of the above
Question 2: Do these sentences show that the writer trusts you?
“I know you can do this. You’re so great at your job!“
A. Yes, if they’re being sincere.
B. No, it doesn’t.
C. I can’t tell.
Question 3: How do you know this person is angry?
“How dare you steal our dog, you lying scoundrel. I need to get Rufus back immediately, or there will be serious consequences, Ronald!”
A. They said “you stole”
B. They called their recipient a “lying scoundrel”
C. They said “immediately”
D. They mentioned “serious consequences”
E. All of the above
Question 4: Which word in this sentence shows that this person is afraid?
“I worry that this mistake will destroy my credibility.“
D. A and B
E. A and C
Question 5: Which word in this sentence shows more disgust?
“I despise the ground you walk on.“
C. Neither word communicates disgust
Question 6: Does this email communicate excitement or sadness?
“Hi, Tatiana! Welcome to Grammarly! We can’t wait to have you on the team. Excited to work together!“
C. A little bit of both
1.E. All of these words indicate joy, happiness, and delight.
2.A. Saying that they “know” something indicates this person is confident.
3.B. The insult in this sentence indicates anger, rather than sadness or fear.
4.E. The word “worry” shows this person is feeling worried, and the verb “destroy” indicates fear as well.
5.A. “Despise” is a strong indicator of disgust.
6.A. The combination of exclamation points and several positive words shows that this person is excited, not sad.