Writing Guide: Words to Set a Formal Tone

When it comes to tone, analytical writing faces an incessant problem. While good analytical writing should work subjectively (expressing your interpretation), it should sound objective (as though it were fact that could not be contested).

How to achieve this effect? One solution is what we might call “sounding passive-aggressive.”You’re not telling the reader what to think — you’re telling them what they might think.

Think of a mobster threatening his underling with a hard and soft line:

○ “I’ll kill ya if ya talk!” — crass, vulgar, no style or class (Eh)

○ “You know what could happen to a mug like you?” — stylish, speculative, good use of rhetorical question and abstraction of specific case to larger point and method (Better)

The soft line wins. Its appeal to the imagination of the listener makes it clear that the argument is speculative: it shows what might be true, rather than what is definitively true. Like scientific hypotheses, good analytical writing doesn’t claim to be definitively true. It claims to show what is probably true instead.

Here are some tips to taking the soft line:

● Introduce your thoughts with phrases, then, like “It is clear/evident/obvious that…” These sentences declare their own subjectivity, even while raising opinion to the level of fact.

Never say “never”: Instead of saying “never” or “no,” say “rarely,” “little,” “few.”

Never say “all” or “a lot”: say “considerably,” “a considerable quantity,” “a number of.”

Avoid variations of the word “is, ”such as “to be,” “was,” “were,” “are,” etc. If you have to, use “offer,” “present,” “remain,” “represent” (or even “occur”) as substitutes.

When interpreting, qualify with words like “arguably,” “perhaps,” and phrases like “might be interpreted as,” “might be construed as,” “might be understood as.”

When saying something that seems obvious(or too obvious if you’re going to contradict it) use “apparently,” “ostensibly,” “evidently.”