What’s the Difference Between Mood vs. Tone?
Oh hello! This is your friendly middle school teacher and artist, Lillie, here to explain one of the most common confusions in literary elements and English vocabulary. Whether you’re a student, a teacher, or a curious adult, these definitions, examples, and cartoons will help!
Your Emotions vs. the Speaker’s Feelings
The difference between mood vs. tone comes down to whose feelings we are talking about: the reader (YOU) or the person speaking (the author or character). Let’s break it down with examples and definitions.
Mood Definition: It’s About YOUR Feelings
When you’re asked to identify the mood of a piece of writing (or video, or song, etc.), you’re being asked to say how the vibe of it makes YOU feel. These feelings are evoked by the setting (where the story or scene is taking place), plot (what’s going on in the story), and by the author’s word choice.
An Example of Mood
For instance, if a short story features dimly lit hallways with creepy voices echoing, slime dripping off the walls, and a villain running in with a sword, the mood would be scary or threatening, because you as the reader would likely be feeling a little scared (whether you want to admit it or not, you brave person)!
Tone Definition: The Author or Speaker’s Feelings
Now to the next piece of the tone vs. mood query. To find the tone, check for the emotions and opinions of the author and/or speaker that are conveyed by their word choice and other communications. How do they feel about the topic being discussed? Disgusted? Loving? Surprised?
An Example of Tone
If you’re reading an article where the author describes an octopus as “glistening, gorgeous, and perfect,” you can tell through the word choice that the author’s opinion towards the sea creature is deeply positive, meaning her tone could be described as “worshipful” or “adoring.” (That’s a funny way to feel about an octopus, but to each her own.)
An easy way to remember tone is to envision a conflict between a mother and her son during dinner.
“Ooh, these vegetables are soooo good,” sneers the son with sarcasm as he pushes his broccoli off the plate.
The mother snaps back, “Don’t use that tone with me, young man!” What she’s implying is that she can tell that behind her child’s words, his tone — his opinion — is full of disrespect and contempt. He could have said the exact same words with a loving tone, and the effect would have been totally different.
Notice again that tone is about the emotions of the speaker (son) that are revealed through their words, actions, and voice quality. The focus of tone is not the listener (mother). If we were to analyze the mother’s tone, however, it would be frustrated and angry.
VIDEO: Tone vs. Mood:
Mood and Tone are Related but Different
Stepping back and looking at that mother and son dinner argument scene with the lens of mood instead of tone, the overall mood of that family argument — the emotions evoked for a reader or viewer — would likely be chaotic, stressful, and acrimonious. The mood often matches the tone. But wait — not always!
It is possible to have a text or video in which the tone is harsh and mean, but the mood is light and funny! The mood and tone sometimes match, but they are can also be different. How?
Imagine the dinner table scene where the characters are all yelling at each other with angry tones of voice — but they’re all wearing pumpkin suits, and there are goofy purple whales juggling jellyfish next to the table!
Even though the tone of words was harsh because the characters were upset, the overall mood is silly, satirical, or “light” because YOU, the reader or viewer, laugh from the ridiculous setting. Context makes a big difference, and when scary words are juxtaposed with a hilarious scene, the result is a change in mood. See more explanation from this PBS video.
Tone and Mood Examples, in Sum
To summarize, tone is about the opinion of the author or speaker towards the subject being discussed. Mood is about the emotions YOU feel, reading or viewing something. They’re connected, but are different. What questions or comments do you have after reading this demystification of tone vs. mood, two commonly confused words? Do share. Want another lesson about ELA concepts which are frequently mixed up? Check out “Topic vs. Theme” and “Former vs. Latter!”
The author and artist, Lillie Marshall, is a National Board Certified Teacher of English who has been a public school educator since 2003, and an experienced Reiki practitioner since 2018. All art on this site is original and hand-drawn by Lillie. She launched DrawingsOf.com Educational Cartoons in 2020, building upon the success of her other two sites, AroundTheWorldL.com (established 2009) and TeachingTraveling.com (founded 2010). Subscribe to Lillie’s monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media to stay connected!