Undertone and overtone are used more or less interchangeably, but there are smatterings of debate here and there on the web about the difference between them. The OED defines undertone as ‘an underlying quality or feeling’, and overtone (usually overtones) as ‘a subtle or subsidiary quality, implication or connotation’. The undertone definition makes it sound like the undertone of the writing is very important, maybe as important, or more important than the apparent tone, even though it might be in some way hidden, unintended or unconscious. In the definition of overtone, the word ‘subtle’ hints that there is some kind of craft involved, as if the reader is being manipulated, but ‘subsidiary’ implies that it is either secondary to the main tone, or logically follows from it. Perhaps ‘undertone’ is better used for when you are talking about the emotions or attitudes that reveal themselves in a piece of writing, while overtone should be used to describe an attitude, or political or ideological slant that you feel to be present in a piece of writing. Others will offer different definitions, though.
As Andy’s Writing Tips seeks to offer practical writing advice, the debate shouldn’t concern us too much. We can use ‘undertone’ to describe the way a writer might reveal the face behind the mask, a story behind a story, or a true feeling behind a polite formulaic greeting. Let’s look at a line from a letter I recently got from my aunt:
It was great to catch up last week, John.
That’s nice. A simple statement with a friendly tone. But regard:
It was nice to finally see you joining in at the party.
Hmm… Friendly enough, I suppose – but there’s something a bit funny in that ‘finally’. Is she just glad to see me after a long time? Perhaps she’s disappointed I haven’t been around much lately, and her feelings are coming out here, unconsciously in a slightly hurt undertone. Reading on:
It’s wonderful when we all come together. These days a lot of people try to live as they please and don’t give a second thought to their own kin, but I never thought we’d be like that. It’s really important that families stick together and don’t drift apart, don’t you think?
Eek. There’s a distinctly disapproving undertone here. In fact, as friendly as she’s trying to be, she’s developing an almost hectoring tone here. I should really visit more often, eh? It all goes to show though, what people are saying isn’t always the same as what they say they’re saying. Another memorable slogan there from Andy’s Writing Tips.
Just as a friendly letter can conceal other emotions, a formal letter needn’t be straightforwardly polite. Good fiction writer’s too will not fill pages with straightforward functional dialogue – and the undertones concealed and revealed in characters’ words can often be as intrinsic to the plot as what they say they’re saying.
Write a passive-aggressive letter to a friend who has disappointed you. Don’t send it, mind.