What is an appropriate English word to describe a negative, perhaps passive-aggressive, tone in someone's voice?

I initially thought perhaps using something like "they had a negative lilt in their voice" could work, but most dictionaries agree that lilt is only used for cheerful or happy tones.

I've also searched for antonyms for lilt, but I have not found any dictionaries that contain any.


I'm trying to come up with written examples. It is quite challenging because we are describing a tonal matter.

I'll present a few examples, but none are perfect. Hopefully I will be successful in conveying the general idea.

  1. Let's say you arrive at the doctor's office 5 minutes late. The receptionist says to you, in a bit of a snotty way, "We appreciate if all of our patients arrive on time. I'll see if the doctor can still see you."
  2. Let's say you make 5 calls to a businessperson's office to return their call. You make 4 of them during business hours, and one late at night. They then call you back, and say with a [need word here] "Please stop making your calls after hours." (implying you are avoiding them).
  3. Let's say you accommodate someone by making an appointment with them at an inconvenient location. After that appointment, they then call, using a [need word here] tone that they have scheduled another appointment at the same location.

In all the examples, the person remains professional, yet is intentionally being a bit nasty. They don't cross that fine line, because they know they have to appear to be professional. Yet, they get right up to the line in order to be passive-aggressive. There is also a bit of a condescending nature involved, as way as a bit of abuse of the power-differential in the relationships.

  • Are they speaking in a flat monotone, perhaps?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 22:47
  • The pretentious word-soup train has stopped at the station, bringing you a choleric tone. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 22:48
  • @DanBron Not flat or monotone. Professional, but intentionally stinging, while trying to make it look like they are not doing it. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 22:51
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    @JohnClifford Yes, it's interesting how much tone plays a role in English communication, yet English has a paucity of tonal words available. I'm working hard on coming up with examples that can be conveyed in writing. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 23:06
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    I think a snide tone is the best descriptor for this sort of thing. "derogatory or mocking in an indirect way." Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 23:27

7 Answers 7


Patronizing could work for a slightly negative and condescending manner.

Patronizing - displaying or indicative of an offensively condescending manner (dictionary.com)

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    "Treat with an apparent kindness which betrays a feeling of superiority." Yep, this is the best one so far and I can't believe I didn't think of it before now. Have an upvote. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 23:34

contemptuous (or "contempt")

Collins defines it as:

contemptuous (kəntemptʃuəs ) adjective [usually verb-link ADJECTIVE] If you are contemptuous of someone or something, you do not like or respect them at all.

Synonyms: scornful, insulting, arrogant, withering

He spoke to her, his voice dripping with contempt. His contemptuous tone was backed up by his contemptuous body language.


I think of a harsh tone, perhaps a snide tone or remark, or more casually a snarky tone.

Snarky, from Merriam-Webster, including example sentence:

crotchety, snappish

sarcastic, impertinent, or irreverent in tone or manner

Example of snarky in a sentence

The writer at No. 10, Fred Mustard Stewart, died last February at 74. His obituary in The Guardian contained this snarky observation: “Year in, year out, the 600-page mark did not daunt him.” —Dwight Garner, New York Times Book Review, 24 Feb. 2008

  • Snarky went click with me. However, your answer should include a reference, which I supplied. If you don't like my edit, you can roll it back or re-edit to suit yourself. You also could add a definition of snide, which I think is also good.
    – ab2
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 0:25

Since you said:

Snide is so close! (And much better than anything I found.) It's still a bit too strong. People who choose to do this are masters at it; they make it so subtle that even if someone overhears it, they will probably not tell them they are being rude. It's like a "subtle passive-aggressive rudeness".

I'm going to hazard arch, which is used like @Jon's applicable patronizing, but with a subtler tone of snarkiness.

From Wordnet:

arch (adjective): (used of behavior or attitude) characteristic of those who treat others with condescension

And from Collins:

arch: knowing or superior

An arch tone is not quite a cliche, but very common, and used when the social situation is recognized by both parties as licensing the superior attitude, such was when the person using it is from a higher social class (back in the days when those were more explicit and subscribed to), or today when the other party has screwed up in a visible manner.

In short, think old-school British upper class dismissively ordering about or correcting someone they think beneath themselves.

Alternatives include superior (not as snarky or witty) and condescending (more explicit and often more brutal, and sometimes felt by the other party to be unjustified).


pompous tone

Pompous: Overly formal, often contains passivity and jargon. Many businesspeople mistake the pompous tone for a professional one and use it regularly.

Words at Work: Business Writing in Half the Time with Twice the Power

You could get away with conceited tone as well, but it is less common as a manner than as a personal attribute. It also seems to be a bit dated.

We thank thee, Father Simon," said a voice, which strove to drown in an artificial squeak the pert conceited tone of Oliver Proudfute.

Sir Walter Scott, The Fair Maid of Perth

Antagonizing is another possibility and is closely associated with passive aggressiveness.


Crass is what came to my mind initially. (?)

Crass: adjective; lacking sensitivity, refinement, poise or intelligence. "the crass assumptions that men make about women"

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    If you include a definition (which is good) then you should also include the source. Commented May 31, 2020 at 6:58

A tone can also be “Whiny” as if the pitch remains high and moves up and down and all about the person expressing their irrelevant disappointment in something that may, or may not be, a big deal. Those who overreact to “stressful” experiences that bring out lack of emotional control. The high pitch is usually emphasized with certain pieces with the subject matter, and usually, this whining is an overreaction to a benign problem that usually gets centered on the person with said tone.

Furthermore selfishness and the inability to see past their own and try and see other perspectives are completely irrelevant. Age groups that normally express such a tone will be anywhere from 1 to 3 years old for two even teenagers. And then we have the whiny young adults who are either coddled or never taught strengths. These individuals were always given things without working for them and or saved from consequence that they never learned on their own lessons that should have been learned. These demographic of people are coddled as children and “baby“ only resulting in a poor weak ignorant adult. No offense just facts.
-the witty writings of Stephanie Joanne Lewis from the sunshine state of Florida.

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