Home > Strategies and Skill Development > Social Reasoning Strategy Families > Stance Taking > Literature Note - Voice, Tone, and Stance

Stance is concerned with the presentation of the person in an act of communication. This involves a number of subtopics, including voice, and tone.

Voice. It is a commonplace that writing instructors often encourage students to write with “their own” voice or an “authentic” voice (Bowden, 1995)—a view that resonates in important ways with the concept of voice introduced by Bakhtin (1925). In the introduction to his edited volume on voice, Elbow (1995) described the concept of voice as having several elements. At the most abstract level, to consider voice is to consider a work in light of its social content: viewing it as a specific communication, taking place in concrete circumstances, for a well-defined purpose. At that level, writing without voice is writing as if the work were an abstract and disembodied system of signs.

Elbow elaborated his understanding of voice as involving at least the following elements: audible voice, dramatic voice, recognizable or distinctive voice, authoritative voice, and resonant voice. Audible voice happens with text which, when it is read silently, impresses on the reader a sense of how it would be read aloud. Dramatic voice happens with text from which the reader is naturally drawn to make inferences about the character of the author—inferences, that is, about the author’s personality, perspective, motivation, and purposes. Recognizable or distinctive voice happens with text where the reader recognizes the author from the text, from a mixture of idiosyncratic elements that reflect a specific audible and dramatic voice. Authoritative voice happens with text in which the reader is moved to infer that the author is confident, knowledgeable, and qualified to present the message contained in the text. And resonant voice happens with text in which the reader is moved to infer a basic integrity and consistency of the author’s message and perceived self.

Elbow (2007) discussed some of the issues that have arisen in connection with the concept of voice, but for our purposes, it is Elbow’s concept of dramatic voice that is most useful. Voice as the imagined tone of voice (audible voice) is arguably an epiphenomenon (since the audible voice one imagines reading a text silently is conditioned by the inferences one has made about the speaker). Distinctive, authoritative, and resonant voice are further inferences one makes from the dramatic voice. They are things one concludes after one has created a mental model of the author as “the person who would say these words.” A useful model for how voice is controlled and related to the presence of particular social conventions can be drawn from the sociolinguistic literature on voice and register (Agha, 2005), in which the voice of the author or speaker is created by evoking some combination of social stereotypes evoked by established register types.

Viewed in this way, voice is essentially how the individual presents him or herself socially in a text—it has to do with the kinds of inferences the text invites the reader to make about the author, or at least the persona the author has chosen to present. As such, voice is closely connected with point of view. An implication is that skilled writers will effectively control syntactic devices closely associated with deictic point of view (Fillmore, 1982; Levinson, 2003), narrative point of view (MacWhinney, 2005; Sells, 1987; Zribi-Hertz, 1989), and empathy (Kuno, 1987; Oshima, 2006), including the foregrounding/point of view effects of choice of syntactic construction and the selection of pronouns and of deictic elements such as verb tense. Simple things such as the decision to use an active versus a passive voice (and thus to make one participant rather than another the subject and therefore the empathic focus), or the decision to use a pronoun rather than a full referring expression (thus implying that a scene is centered around a particular individual) have significant ramifications for how readers will place themselves empathically in a described scene. Such choices, combined with skillful use of register and style, effectively define a writer’s (or a character’s) voice.

We do not have detailed evidence about children’s progress in mastering the control of voice in writing, but the general trend observed for all elements of the social mode, and the emphasis placed on voice by many writing teachers, suggests that flexible control of voicing effects in writing is a relatively late-developing phenomenon, though some voices and registers are likely to be mastered in everyday conversation, and thus early, while others, such as academic registers and the voicing effects associated with them, are likely to be acquired relatively late, and probably after exposure to literatures in which academic registers and styles are routinely deployed.

Tone. An important related aspect of text, viewed socially, is what in writing instruction is usually referred to as tone, though careful examination reveals that the kinds of specific linguistic devices that are used to create tonal effects are closely linked to those that involve the taking of stance, as stance is understood sociolinguistically. These, in turn, are closely related to the identification of voice, or the social impression of the author created by a text.

A typical explanation of tone as a feature of writing is that found in such popular works as that of Chaitkin (2005):
When we speak of tone in writing, we are referring to the attitude of the writer toward the subject and/or reader. It is close related to what we mean when we refer to someone’s tone of voice. Tone may range from harsh and insistent to gentle and reflective. There is as much variety of tone in writing as in human feeling (p. 78).

This follows in turn on a long rhetorical tradition, for instance, to be found in standard school rhetorics in the English critical tradition (Newcomer, 1904), though other fields, such as sociolinguistics, have also noted the importance of tonal effects in linguistic interaction (Goffman, 1959).

Voice and tone as aspects of stance. What is critical to note, however, is that there is considerable knowledge about the linguistic devices that create the impression of a specific tone. These devices are referred to in the literature as evaluation, appraisal, stance, or subjectivity markers, and include vocabulary and syntactic constructions—not only those that directly denote an attitude, but also various elements that can be construed as metadiscourse. The relevant literature includes work on the pragmatics of affect (Beebe & Waring, 2004; Besnier, 1990; Biber & Finegan, 1988, 1989; Downes, 2000; Ochs, 1993; Ochs & Schieflin, 1989). Stance plays an important role even in the most impersonal of genres, such as academic writing, where the marking of stance, while subtler than in everyday discourse, plays a fundamental role (Hyland, 1996, 1999, 2005b, 2008; Hyland & Tse, 2005; Myers, 1989; Myers, 1997; White, 2003). The marking of stance can be divided into coherent systems focused on different types of stance, such as appraisal, epistemic status, and affect (Chafe & Nichols, 1986; Conrad & Biber, 2000; Martin, 2000; White, 2002).

Stance can be presented as an explicit, metacognitive act or a metadiscourse act if directed to the audience (Hyland, 2005a), or it can be much more implicit and subjective, encoded in grammatical patterns with little independent salience. For instance, concepts of possibility and necessity, certainty and doubt, might be expressed explicitly, with lexical verbs and a full embedded clause (“I believe that the world is round.”) or implicitly, indicated only by the default interpretation of grammatical form (e.g., indicative mood, as in, “The world is round.”) This phenomenon of subjectivity, and the extent to which stance is subjectivized, yields a range of lexical/grammatical patterns in which stance is more or less separated from the content towards which a stance is signaled (Bybee & Fleischman, 1995; Foley & van Valin, 1984; Givon, 1980; Kockelman, 2004; Palmer, 1986; Traugott, 1989, 1995).

Stance comprises a complex of different kinds of devices: lexical, grammatical, and discourse, but it is sufficiently well-defined linguistically that there has been recent progress in recognizing it automatically via natural language processing techniques (Bruce & Wiebe, 1999; Hatzivassiloglou & Wiebe, 2000; Wiebe & Milhalcea, 2006; Wilson, 2001). However, we have as yet relatively little knowledge about how students’ ability to manipulate stance develops over time. While the literature suggests that children have considerable ability to manipulate stance in ordinary conversation, it is less clear how quickly they develop the ability to control stance in written text, though it would be plausible to suppose that it is closely tied in with voice and the development of a richer control of register.

Stance-taking is closely related to issues of perspective, bias, and social presentation, and thus to discuss it is to touch on a large range of issues that go well beyond literacy, including bias and propaganda. The essence of bias in text is that it adopts a stance that implies strong value judgements about a subject without providing readers with convincing reasons to adopt that stance themselves. The essence of propaganda is that it manipulates the linguistic elements that support stance (and perspective) so as to get the audience to adopt the desired stance without evaluating it at all. These are the kinds of issues addressed in reading theory under the heading of critical literacy (McLaughlin & deVoogd, 2004) and fostering a critical stance (Bean, 2000).

A reflective understanding of the linguistic devices that reflect authorial stance is an important part of the writer’s choices and of the reader's perception of the author's intent—not just to establish a particular tone, or to foster particular inferences about the writer’s persona—but as a way of negotiating the social relationships that the writer wishes to establish with readers and peers (Beach & Anson, 2004). As such, reflective thought about stances and evaluations necessarily goes beyond an analysis of the linguistic devices used to establish stance and blends into issues of critical thinking. This is not part and parcel of the picture we have drawn of the social mode, for by nature social communication, being a transaction between writer and reader, reflects all of the issues of social interaction, including manipulation, deception, and power. Many of the devices for manipulating voice, tone, and stance involve manipulating elements of register and style, which could be discussed here, but are probably better discussed under the general heading of code switching, in the verbal mode.

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