3.7 Establishing Pathos through Examples and Tone

Anna Mills

Powerful Examples

Emotional language can certainly affect readers, but even the most fervent appeals to values and sympathies may feel too abstract without examples. To feel connected to an argument, readers need to be able to imagine what it means in some particular case. Writers can bring an example to life by describing a scene, developing a character, or building suspense and ending with a dramatic resolution.

One book, Solito/Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America, edited by Steven Mayers and Jonathan Freedman, dedicates itself to first-person stories of asylum seekers. One of these is “Rosa, a Salvadoran mother fighting to save her life as well as her daughter’s after death squads threatened her family. Together they trekked through the jungles on the border between Guatemala and Mexico, where masked men assaulted them.” Another is “Adrian, from Guatemala City, whose mother was shot to death before his eyes. He refused to join a gang, rode across Mexico atop cargo trains, crossed the US border as a minor, and was handcuffed and thrown into ICE detention on his eighteenth birthday.” The publisher, Voice of Witness, sees powerful individual stories as its best tool to effect social change. Its mission statement declares, “Voice of Witness (VOW) advances human rights by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice…Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand.”

Of course, an argument calling for more controls on immigration would choose a wholly different kind of story. The following excerpt from President Trump’s speech accepting the nomination for the presidency in 2016 focuses on a young woman killed by an immigrant: “They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources. One such border-crosser was released and made his way to Nebraska. There, he ended the life of an innocent young girl named Sarah Root. She was 21 years old, and was killed the day after graduating from college with a 4.0 Grade Point Average. Her killer was then released a second time, and he is now a fugitive from the law. I’ve met Sarah’s beautiful family. But to [the Obama] Administration, their amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”

Obviously, there are as many stories to choose from as there are immigrants. If a story serves as an illustration of a general point, we have to ask how representative it is. Is it presented as typical? If so, is there evidence to show its typicality? Arguments can complement specific examples with statistics to show typicality.

Even if an example represents a common experience, we need to look carefully at how it is used. Does the story promote harmful stereotypes while neglecting accounts that are just as common or more common and that contradict those stereotypes?

Practice Exercise

Review some local headlines on news sites like NPRFox NewsABC, or any other news site you frequently visit, and find an article or video that uses a powerful example to illustrate a point. Then, evaluate the powerful example, addressing the following questions:

  • What point does the powerful example illustrate?
  • What types of emotions does the example play on? How will these emotions affect the reader’s opinion on an issue discussed in the piece?
  • Is the powerful example presented as typical? If so, is there evidence to show its typicality?
  • Does the powerful example promote harmful stereotypes? How so, or why not?


Tone refers to the overall emotional attitude of the argument. We know intuitively what “tone of voice” means when we’re describing a conversation. If we hear a person speaking and ask ourselves the following questions, we will usually be able to describe the tone:

  • What emotions does the sound of the voice convey?
  • What expression do we see or imagine on the speaker’s face as they make the argument?
smiling woman holding microphone
Smiling Woman with Microphone. Photo by Loui G. from Pexels under the Pexels License.

When we read, we lack the visual and auditory clues, but we still intuitively sense the writer’s attitude. Tone comes across through emotional word choice and choice of examples, but also in other ways, both subtle and overt. These include sentence structure, use of questions, emphasis, and direct declarations of feeling. All of these contribute to an overall pattern.

For example, let’s look at the following lines, which make an argument about developing a solid border regulation policy:

I don’t have a clear vision yet of what the right border policy would be, and I admit that completely open borders would put our security at risk. But surely there are ways to regulate the border without criminalizing people who are driven by need and good intentions.

We might note that words like “driven by need” and “good intentions” evoke feelings of compassion and sympathy. In describing the tone, however, we could go further to talk about the writer’s purpose and attitude. Their admissions of uncertainty in the first sentence indicate an attitude of humility and openness, so we could describe the tone as “humble.” In the second sentence, the word “surely” suggests urgency and an appeal to common sense. The contrast between the orderly, neutral phrase “regulate the border” and the more aggressive-sounding “criminalizing people” suggests that one option is decent and the other cruel. The feelings of compassion and sympathy evoked by people’s “need” and “good intentions” reinforce the sense of urgency and appeal to decency. The combination of all of this suggests that the writer cares very much about the ethics of what they are discussing because innocent people’s wellbeing is at stake. We could describe the tone, then, as “earnest,” “urgent,” or “impassioned.”

How can we identify a writer’s tone? If we want to describe the tone of an argument, we can ask ourselves these general questions:

  • How does the writer feel about the topic of the argument?
  • How does the writer feel about their own knowledge of the topic?
  • What is the writer’s attitude toward the reader?

If we are not sure how to answer or we want more insight, we can consider specific aspects of the writer’s attitude, such as the degree of respect, seriousness, or certainty they feel. To describe the tone very precisely, we will need to use multiple words. We can ask ourselves about each of the aspects of tone listed in the table below and consider which of the accompanying tone words best describe the argument we are analyzing. Note that words clustered together are in most cases not synonyms. They convey shades of meaning, so they are worth looking up in an online dictionary to confirm their connotations before using them.

Words to Describe a Writer’s Tone

Aspect of the writer’s attitude Tone words Contrasting tone words
Degree of seriousness conversational, flippant, glib, childish, frivolous, facetious, humorous, sarcastic, comic, satiric, amused, ironic, mocking, irreverent, casual, lighthearted, playful, cheerful, ridiculous, giddy, dreamy vs. serious, earnest, solemn, grave, intense, impassioned, prayerful, reverent, idealistic
Degree of respect dismissive, patronizing, condescending, arrogant, haughty, chauvinistic, macho, domineering vs. humble, respectful, reverent, intimidated, obsequious, submissive, complimentary, flattering, simpering
Degree of formality irreverent, informal, coarse, vulgar, casual, conversational, improvisational, exploratory vs. formal, businesslike, professional, professorial, esoteric, clinical
Degree of self-regard condescending, arrogant, patronizing, proud, majestic, haughty, obnoxious vs. modest, humble, self-effacing, self-deprecating, down-to-earth
Degree of goodwill toward others benevolent, kind, loving, affectionate, amiable, genial, agreeable, friendly, jovial, encouraging, warm vs. mean-spirited, mean, malicious, spiteful, cruel, hateful, hating, vengeful
Degree of anxiety agitated, excited, sensational, alarmed, nervous, anxious, obsessive, worried, fearful, frightened, paranoid, frantic, frazzled, desperate, dramatic, disturbed, perturbed vs. calm, tranquil, serene, unworried, contemplative, meditative, reflective, thoughtful
Degree of hesitation cautious, hesitating, reticent, evasive vs. bold, audacious, straightforward, direct, outspoken, authoritative
Degree of certainty conflicted, uncertain, reluctant, contradictory, confused, baffled, ambivalent, uneasy, apologetic, regretful, pensive vs. confident, sure, definite, unapologetic, righteous, self-righteous, determined, persuasive, hypnotic
Degree of interest in the topic wondering, curious, inquisitive, fascinated vs. bored, apathetic, removed, indifferent, wooden, world-weary, dull, bland, banal, blasé
Degree of surprise unbelieving, incredulous, surprised, innocent, naive, disbelieving vs. knowing, jaded, nonplussed, weary
Degree of distance intimate, impassioned, passionate, ardent, personal vs. formal, impersonal, objective, neutral, journalistic, informative, professional, businesslike, intellectual, detached, numb, distant, disinterested
Degree of openness open, direct, forthright, candid vs. secretive, sneaky, cagey, sly
Degree of approval elated, enthusiastic, ecstatic, celebratory, euphoric, joyous, jubilant, zestful, exuberant, blissful, happy, delighted, awestruck, appreciative, approving vs. disapproving, disappointed, concerned, alarmed, critical, caustic, appalled
Degree of warmth toward the audience warm, cordial, friendly, flirtatious, seductive vs. cold, forbidding, aloof, impersonal
Degree of connection to suffering concerned, compassionate, tender, consoling, comforting, sympathetic, empathetic vs. apathetic, indifferent, detached, aloof, callous
Desire to communicate talkative, eager vs. laconic, taciturn, reluctant
Pace abrupt, hurried, hasty vs. patient, gradual, unhurried, lethargic, languid, pensive, scrupulous
Attitude to the future despairing, tragic, defeated, discouraged, resigned, overwhelmed, disheartened, dismal, foreboding, dejected, depressed, bitter, bleak, bewildered, pessimistic, distressed, cynical, pathetic, melancholy, nostalgic, saddened, miserable, morbid, morose, mournful, sorrowful, somber, lamenting, grave, grim vs. hopeful, sanguine, optimistic, content, excited, enthusiastic
Attitude to another’s success envious, jealous vs. admiring, congratulatory, celebratory, enthusiastic
Attitude to another’s failing critical, annoyed, angry, frustrated, impatient, disappointed, resentful, hurt, aggravated, outraged, appalled, indignant, disgusted, impotent, vindictive, vengeful, furious vs. forgiving, indulgent, understanding, accepting, tolerant
Attitude to one’s own failing apologetic, remorseful, repentant, disgusted, self-critical vs. defensive, self-indulgent, complacent
Attitude to powerful forces like spirit, country, religion patriotic, pious, religious, reverent, mystical, spiritual, obedient vs. irreverent, scoffing, impious, skeptical
Young black speaking at a rally during the pandemic
Black Lives Matter. Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash

Phrases for Analyzing Tone

If the tone is constant:

  • X takes a ___________ tone in this piece.
  • The tone of the argument is ___________.
  • The ___________ tone suggests that ___________.
  • X’s choice of words like “___________” to describe ___________ suggests their ___________ attitude.
  • X’s ___________ tone reflects their attitude to ___________.

If the tone shifts in the course of the argument:

  • Early on, X adopts a ___________ tone, but later they seem more ___________.
  • Although at first, the tone is ___________, X shifts to a more ___________ tone when ___________.
  • X takes a ___________ attitude to ___________, but when it comes to ___________, X is more ___________.
  • X’s ___________ tone in the section on ___________ contrasts with their more ___________ attitude to ___________.

Practice Exercises

A. Write three one-sentence versions of the same argument, each with a different tone. Label each version with a tone word that describes it precisely.

B. Choose an argument you have read recently, and describe its tone. Choose a sample sentence from the argument in which the tone comes across clearly and explain which words expressed that tone.

Attributions: 8.3: Powerful Examples is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). 8.4: Tone is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). Editing and re-mixing by Dr. Tracey Watts and Dr. Dorie LaRue as part of the LOUIS Interactive OER for Dual Enrollment project, 2022. It is licensed under a CC-BY NC SA 4.0 International license.

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