In this lesson, we will learn how to recognize an author’s attitude toward his or her subject. We will pay close attention to the difference between formal, objective writing, and informal, subjective writing.

What Is Attitude?

Have you ever been accused of having an attitude? Do you act differently in some situations than you do in others, say when you are at a job interview or hanging out with your friends? Authors have attitudes, too, and they write differently depending on their situation. Indeed, writers’ attitudes toward their subject matter often show up clearly in their writing, and readers have the job of identifying a writer’s attitude and determining why he or she takes that tone and how it affects the meaning of the text.

An author’s attitude, or tone, is simply his or her feelings about the subject he or she is writing about. Writers express their attitudes through their word choice, sentence structure, and figurative language. Attitudes also show up in the details, reasons, and evidence writers select to support their descriptions and arguments.

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Determining Attitude

To determine an author’s attitude, readers should ask themselves the following questions:

1. What kinds of words does the author use? Are they specific or general? Are they emotional or neutral? Are they common and familiar or scholarly and unfamiliar?

2. Does the author use figurative language, which compares dissimilar things to make a literary point?

3. Is the author’s sentence structure simple or complex? Does the author write long sentences or short ones?

4. Does the author present a balanced view of the subject?

5. What kinds of details, reasons, and evidence does the author include to fill out his or her descriptions or support his or her arguments? Are these elements rational or emotional?

Answering these questions honestly and thoroughly will help you, the reader, figure out the author’s attitude toward his or her subject. Now, let’s take a look at some of the attitudes you might uncover in your search.

Objective vs. Subjective

Writers’ attitudes tend to fall into two broad categories: formal and objective or informal and subjective.

Formal and objective attitudes tend to focus on facts rather than emotions. Writers aiming for this tone usually use longer, more complex sentences, higher-level vocabulary, and a third person point of view (no references to ‘I’ or ‘you’) that distances the writer from the subject matter. Descriptive details are usually restrained, and the author presents a balanced view of the subject by acknowledging other viewpoints and citing rational reasons supported by reliable, well-sourced evidence.

Informal or subjective attitudes, on the other hand, tend to be more emotional. Writers who express this tone choose conversational, common language that might include slang or figures of speech. Sentences are usually simpler and shorter. Details tend to be quite vivid, and writers often personally address their readers in the first person (‘I’) and second person (‘you’) points of view. Writers may still use logical reasons and evidence to support their points, but these elements may be based more on emotion than rational argument.

Let’s look at a couple writing samples to illustrate the difference between these two attitudes. The first exhibits the formal and objective tone.

‘The battlefield at Gettysburg attracts thousands of visitors every year. Many of them travel long distances to tour the battlefield and town, learn about Civil War history, and experience the feeling of standing in a place where a major historical event occurred.’

Notice that the writer presents just the facts without any personal interpretation. The third person point of view extends throughout, the sample’s vocabulary is quite high-level, and the second sentence is long and fairly complex.

Now let’s look at a sample with an informal and subjective tone.

‘The battlefield at Gettysburg is one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. It attracts thousands of visitors every year, and these people come from long distances just to stand in this place where a big historical event happened. Most tourists also like to take tours of the battlefield and town and learn something about Civil War history in the process.’

Do you see the difference? The writer uses the first person point of view, everyday language, and shorter sentences.

Whole Range of Emotions

If an author’s attitude is informal and subjective, it can encompass a whole range of emotions. Tone can be angry, cheerful, joyous, critical, comic, nostalgic, gentle, depressed, bitter, respectful, optimistic, pessimistic, passionate, suspicious, mocking, relaxed, intense, and much more.

Let’s practice identifying the emotions of a writer’s attitude with a few samples. Here are your answer choices: comic, critical, nostalgic, or depressed.

Sample 1: ‘The cabin in the woods reminds me of my great-uncle’s place, all cozy and neat, tucked into the trees. It even had plaid curtains at the windows and a metal bucket sitting right outside the front door. What wonderful memories the sweet little place evoked when I first saw it!’

Did you say nostalgic? Then you are correct.

Sample 2: ‘The cabin in the woods appeared sad as I walked up the pitiful, broken path toward it. Its tattered plaid curtains drooped in the window, and a neglected metal bucket perched forlornly on the front step. I felt my spirit sink as I approached the dismal little place.’

Did you identify this one as depressed? That is right.

Sample 3: ‘The cabin in the woods looked like a trash heap to me as I approached, being careful not to trip over broken pieces of path that seemed to have been attacked by a heavy sledge hammer. A rusty metal bucket sat crookedly on the front step, and shabby plaid curtains hung in the dirty window. What a nasty place to go for a vacation!’

This sample exhibits a critical attitude.

Sample 4: ‘The cabin in the woods seemed to lean slightly sideways as I tripped up the broken path, teetering and lurching as I went. I landed with a thump on the doorstep after I accidentally tripped over a metal bucket right outside the front door. As I lay there, looking up at the sky, a bird flew down and landed on my forehead. What a way to start my vacation!’

We will end with a chuckle with this sample, which is comic in attitude.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. An author’s attitude, or tone, is simply his or her feelings about the subject he or she is writing about. Writers express their attitudes through their word choices, sentence structures, and figurative language. Attitudes also show up in the details, reasons, and evidence writers select to support their descriptions and arguments. Readers can determine an author’s attitude by asking themselves important questions about these elements.

Writers’ attitudes tend to fall into two broad categories: formal and objective or informal and subjective. The formal and objective attitude tends to focus on facts rather than emotions and contains longer, more complex sentences, higher-level vocabulary, a third person point of view, and rational reasons and evidence. The informal and subjective attitude, on the other hand, tends to be much more emotional and often exhibits conversational language, shorter and simpler sentences, the first and second person points of view, and a wide range of emotions.

By learning how to identify authors’ attitudes, you will greatly increase your understanding and appreciation of texts and their messages and meanings.

Learning Outcomes

Your aim at the end of the lesson should be to:

  • Explain what attitude or tone means in reference to authors
  • Recall how to determine the attitude of the author
  • Differentiate between objective and subjective attitudes
  • Demonstrate how to identify the emotion of a writer’s attitude