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 Mar 13 '16 at 22:47
  • The pretentious word-soup train has stopped at the station, bringing you a choleric tone. – John Clifford Mar 13 '16 at 22:48
  • @DanBron Not flat or monotone. Professional, but intentionally stinging, while trying to make it look like they are not doing it. – RockPaperLizard Mar 13 '16 at 22:51
  • 2
    @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. – RockPaperLizard Mar 13 '16 at 23:06
  • 1
    I think a snide tone is the best descriptor for this sort of thing. "derogatory or mocking in an indirect way." – John Clifford Mar 13 '16 at 23:27

Patronizing could work for a slightly negative and condescending manner.

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

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    "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. – John Clifford Mar 13 '16 at 23:34

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

| improve this answer | |
  • 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 Mar 14 '16 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).

| improve this answer | |

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.

| improve this answer | |

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

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

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    If you include a definition (which is good) then you should also include the source. – KillingTime May 31 at 6:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.