Chapter 11: Tone and Style

11.1 Tone and Style

Tone and style, while often confused, are both important in academic writing. Style also involves word choice, coherence, conciseness, and correctness. This chapter contains sections about each of these elements of style.

Definition of Tone and Style

Tone refers to the type of language a writer uses to address their audience. When writing an email to a friend, for example, you may choose to use an informal or colloquial tone, whereas an essay for an English class requires an academic tone. Compare the two examples below:

Example 1: The city should just start paying for our rides to school so we can use the bus money for other stuff. If this happens, people will actually start caring about how to get there.

Example 2: If the city gave students free access to public transportation, riding to school for free would not only save students money, but it would also promote the use of public transportation.

While both sentences above convey the same idea, Example 1 illustrates an informal tone or register, while Example 2 displays an academic tone. Therefore, if you were writing a persuasive essay arguing for public transportation, Example 2 would be appropriate. Example 1 should be used when an informal tone is usual, such as in an email, a message to a friend, or a dialogue between two friends in a story.

Style, on the other hand, involves more than just formality and informality. It concerns how clearly we write. Some beginning academic writers think that having wordy and complicated sentences equals having a good writing style, but that can make it difficult for readers to grasp the idea of a text. Essays should be well-written and free of errors, but first they should be clear and logical.

Here are a few useful guidelines to help develop your writing style:

  • Avoid using abstract and complex terms, since they tend to confuse rather than impress readers.
  • Accept that your writing will always seem clearer to yourself than to others; therefore, do not hesitate to get another reader’s opinion.
  • Keep your audience in mind while writing.
  • Know the expectations of an academic English writing style.
  • Understand how readers decode the information they read.

Review Questions: Definition of Tone and Style

  1. Think about three kinds of writing you do every day. What tones do they represent?
  2. List three expectations for academic English writing style.

For questions 3–5, determine whether the tone and style of the sentences below are appropriate or inappropriate for a persuasive essay you are writing for your English composition class. Discuss your answers with a partner.

  1. The overall quality of the food served to students at school needs to improve. Even though school districts require students to spend hours in science classes learning about nutrition and balanced meals, administrators seem to ignore that the best way to teach is by example. The food most schools serve students is neither nutritious nor tasty. There is a great distance between what students learn they should eat and what they really get at school.
  2. The food served at school sucks. I don’t eat that stuff, and I never will. Schools should walk their talk and serve us grub that is edible, not that junk that can kill you. When we get pizza, the cheese does not even look like cheese. It looks like some weird alien substance …
  3. Most students and school staff seem to agree that the food served to students in school cafeterias is not good enough. Why still serve it, then? Well, the reality is that it is not that easy to change things in a school district. This fact illustrates the contradiction between what students learn in classes about health and nutrition and what they actually eat.

Word Choice

Most writers’ problems with word choice come from trying to use words they do not know. At times, you may feel the pressure to use vocabulary that is “fancy” or “smart.” However, using words whose meanings you are not sure of may change your ideas radically. Misspelling a word may also confuse readers. Before using a word you are not sure about, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I sure this is the right word to express my idea?
  • To the best of my knowledge, did I spell it correctly?
  • Is the word appropriate for this text and my audience?
  • If I am not sure about the word I am trying to use, is there another word I can replace it with?

At times, you may also be concerned about reducing the number of mistakes in your writing to obtain a good grade. In such cases, it is best to look up the words you do not know. If you are not allowed to look them up, take a safer approach and replace them with another word you know.

In order to avoid problems with the words you choose, read often. Books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs are among the many useful reading resources that will expose you to new words and help you expand your vocabulary.

The following sections will help you make more informed decisions about choosing words for your work.

Denotation and connotation

Words may carry a denotative (literal) meaning or a connotative (figurative, implied) meaning. For example, when writing a description of the place you live in, you may call it a “home,” a “house,” or a “residence.” These three words denote or indicate the same place. However, their connotative meaning is different. “Home” refers to a warmer place than “house.” “Residence” probably carries very little feeling compared to the other two words.

Connotative meanings of words may be positive, negative, or sometimes neutral, depending on what you are writing and who you are writing for. For example, informal words that may carry a neutral or positive connotation in a letter to a friend may have a negative connotation in an argumentative essay. In this lesson and subsequent practice exercises, assume your audience expects an academic tone.

Consider both denotative and connotative meanings of a word before using it. Some words have a negative connotation and may not be appropriate for your work.

The table below contains words with both positive and negative connotations when used in a persuasive essay. Read and compare them.

Table 11.1 Words with positive and negative connotations
Positive Connotation Possible Negative Connotation
Boy, men, people Dude (also used informally)
Natural Plain
Child Kid
Inexpensive, thrifty Cheap
Teenager Dirtbag
Girl, woman, people Chick

Review Questions: Word Choice

Assuming your readers expect an academic tone, replace the words in bold with other words carrying more positive connotations.

  1. The peeps at my school voted against having makeup classes on Saturday. (Replace “The peeps at my school”)
  2. When I asked my li’l bro if he was hooked on video games, he went, “Of course I’m not!” (Replace “li’l bro,” “hooked on,” and “he went.”)
  3. She goes up to this guy and goes, like, “Who are you?” But when they got chatting, she chilled right out. (Replace “goes up to this guy and goes, like, ‘Who are you?,’ “got chatting,” and “chilled right out.”


Misspelling words can also cause you problems, especially if you write a word that looks similar to the one you want but has a different meaning. The best way to avoid misspellings is to become familiar with the words you often use.

You should also double-check the words suggested by the spell check application on your word processor. Although these programs catch common misspellings, they sometimes make wrong suggestions or simply miss misspelled words.

A few hints to help you avoid spelling errors:

  • Make flash cards with the words you frequently use in your essays but have problems spelling. Seeing them often will help you memorize them.
  • Keep a vocabulary list at the end of your notebook containing both new words and words you have a hard time spelling.

Consider this list of commonly misspelled words:

  • acknowledge
  • accidentally
  • awkward
  • acknowledgment
  • argument
  • basically
  • commitment
  • consensus
  • convenient
  • definitely
  • descend
  • desperate
  • dependent
  • embarrass
  • existence
  • forfeit
  • fourth
  • fulfill
  • guarantee
  • harass
  • independence
  • indispensable
  • insufficient
  • interrupt
  • judgment
  • length
  • liaison
  • license
  • maintenance
  • negotiable
  • occasion
  • occurrence
  • opportunity
  • parallel
  • perseverance
  • proceed
  • receipt
  • regardless
  • religious
  • separate
  • specifically
  • sufficient
  • temperament
  • truly
  • unanimous
  • usually
  • vengeance
  • withhold

Review Questions: Misspelling

Choose the word with the correct spelling. The words in this practice section may not be in the list provided in the Misspelling section, and you may have to use a dictionary to learn their correct spelling.

  1. Lack of water and fire extinguishers in the room aggravated/agravated the fire.
  2. Their analysis/analisis of the problem was accurate.
  3. My parents say that my curfew is not negociable/negotiable.
  4. The history teacher was irritated when she talked about the omission/omision of an important fact in the students’ exam responses.
  5. Lawmakers recomended/recommended the bill be changed before the final vote.

Gender Bias

Writers need to make sure they address readers in a respectful and unbiased manner. One way to do this is by carefully choosing your nouns and pronouns. For example, when you address people in general, readers will interpret the exclusive use of “he,” “him,” and “his” or “she,” “her”,  and “hers” as biased. The suggestions below will help you avoid gender bias in your essays:

  1. Rephrase the sentence.
    • A teacher must consider the background of his students (biased).
    • A teacher must consider the students’ backgrounds (unbiased).
  2. Use plural nouns or pronouns, or use gender-neutral nouns, such as “person,” “individual,” “child,” etc.
    • A student knows he must do his homework (biased).
    • Students know they have to do their homework (unbiased).
    • Teachers must consider the backgrounds of their students (unbiased).
  3. If the noun you are using is a profession that carries gender (e.g., “steward,” and “stewardess”), use the gender-neutral variation (e.g., “flight attendant”).
    • All salesmen were required to attend the meeting (biased).
    • All salespeople were required to attend the meeting (unbiased).
  4. Replace the pronoun “he” with “one,” “you,” “we,” or use “he or she” (but do not overuse them).
    • When a student finished his exam early, he could leave the room (biased).
    • When a student finished her or his exam early, she or he could leave the room (unbiased).
  5. Alternatively, use the singular “they” to avoid specifying a gender or to reflect a non-binary person’s preferences for how you refer to them (but be aware that, while “they” to denote an individual without indicating gender is now pretty much accepted in spoken English, it is technically grammatically incorrect and your teacher may or may not accept it).
    • Ali likes basketball. They started playing basketball when they were eight years old.
    • When a team member finishes a break, they should proceed directly to the sales floor.

When avoiding gender bias, use the strategies that best fit your personal style, but try not to overuse any one strategy.

Review Questions: Gender Bias

Rewrite the sentences below and eliminate their gender bias. Refer to the strategies given in this section.

  1. Each doctor will explain her own procedures.
  2. When you call the technician, tell him the computer broke yesterday.
  3. According to the guidelines, a writer needs to publish her manuscript in order to be eligible for the grant.
  4. If I ever meet a congressman, I will tell him how upset I am with politics at the national level.
  5. When a doctor wants to order gloves, she must speak to the office staff.

Sentence Order

The elements in an English sentence have a standard or canonical position. Writers should understand this order of elements because choosing to adhere to it or break it will draw readers’ attention to different elements of a sentence. The canonical order of elements in an English sentence is demonstrated in Table 11.2.

Table 11.2 The canonical order of elements in an English sentence
Subject Verb Other elements (indirect and direct objects, adverbials, etc.)
The instructor offered the students a solution to the problem during class.

Generally, the subject is the doer or the main character, and the verb expresses the action, state, or description. Other elements may include people or things affected by the action, adverbials (references to time, place, manner, etc), and so on.

While it is true that English writing favours elements in the canonical order, this does not mean you should only write in this order. It means that this sequence should only be broken when there is a clear reason for doing so (adding emphasis, placing old information first, etc.). The canonical order is a principle and not an absolute rule of writing.

The following lessons will help you determine how to shift the order of sentence elements to write cohesive sentences and add emphasis when needed.

Review Questions: Sentence Order

Rewrite the sentences below and redistribute sentence elements according to the canonical order. (Hint: You should start new sentences with the underlined elements.)

  1. Finally, in a very apologetic tone, the director spoke to us.
  2. After running for two hours and exercising for another two at the gym last night, Rachel collapsed.
  3. With words of encouragement after a long and difficult year, the teacher addressed the students.

Characters and Actions

  1. The following table contains pairs of nouns and verbs. Complete it with the missing elements:
    Table 11.3 Nouns and their corresponding verbs
    Noun Verb
    decision decide
    explanation explain
  2. Diagnose the sentences below and identify their characters and actions. Then rewrite them and replace the underlined nouns with the corresponding verbs from the above table:
    1. The mayor’s analysis of the issue did not convince journalists. (Noun = analysis)
    2. Bob’s explanation of why he was late frustrated his wife. (Noun = explanation)
    3. The documentary’s description of the accident shocked viewers. (Noun = description)
    4. The conclusion the scientists reached was that the problem had no solution. (Noun = conclusion)

Characters and Actions

When your writing highlights important sentence elements, such as characters and actions, your sentences become clear to your readers and naturally draw their attention. Characters are sentence elements that trigger actions or events. They can be concrete (a person, animal, or thing) or abstract (an issue, a concept). Characters are usually nouns or pronouns. Actions describe what characters do or what events they trigger. Actions are expressed by verbs. These concepts are illustrated in the examples below:

Example 1: Jack’s refusal to leave the worksite resulted in his boss’s decision to call security.

Example 2: Because Jack refused to leave the worksite, his boss decided to call security.

Consider the following differences between the sentences in Example 1 and Example 2:

  1. The characters of Example 1, Jack and his boss, are part of the subject, but they do not receive the main focus in the sentence. The foci lie in the words “refusal” and “decision.”
  2. The characters of Example 2, Jack and his boss, receive focus in the subject of each respective clause, and their actions are expressed by the verbs “refused” and “decided,” instead of in the nouns “refusal” and “decision.” Example 2 characters are aligned with their actions.

Notice that Example 1 draws readers’ attention to the abstract nouns “refusal” and “decision.” Even though it is possible to use abstract nouns as characters when you write about abstract issues, this example shows that it can be a bad decision when you use them in lieu of clear characters and their actions.

The alignment between characters and their actions makes sentences like Example 2 more powerful. It is easy to turn type-1 sentences into type-2 ones. All you need is to play a simple game of verbs and nouns, as shown in Table 11.3 in review question 1 for this section.


The old-before-new principle guides how writers should sequence information in a sentence. According to this principle, they should use the information readers already know to introduce information they do not know yet. This principle helps direct readers from familiar or old information to new information. Analyze this first set of examples:

Example 1: The science teacher spoke about environmental challenges yesterday, and she mentioned five big environmental problems countries will face in the upcoming decade. Carbon-dioxide concentration levels in the atmosphere are increasing rapidly [new information], and this was the first problem she described [old information].

Example 2: The science teacher spoke about environmental challenges yesterday, and she mentioned five big environmental problems countries will face in the upcoming decade. She first talked about [old information] the increasing concentration levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere [new information].

The sentence in Example 2 gradually guides the writer from old to new information. Since information is logically displayed in the sentence, readers are not only able to understand it better, but they will also remember it more easily.

Here are some additional examples:

Example 3: Yesterday, lawmakers finally approved a bill that introduces new rules and regulations to financial markets in Canada. The increase of the government’s regulatory powers [new information] was by far the most controversial of the new measures [old information].

Example 4: Yesterday, lawmakers finally approved a bill that introduces new rules and regulations to financial markets in Canada. The most controversial measure by far [old information] was the increase of the government’s regulatory powers [new information].

Review Questions: Old-before-new

Rewrite the sentences below and apply the old-before-new principle to make them more cohesive.

  1. The syllabus the instructor gave students yesterday did not include dates for turning in papers or for taking exams. Although all assignments were described in detail, as well as the content for each test, the syllabus did not include when they were due.
  2. In her email, the principal emphasized that new attendance rules would be in place. She also told us that teachers have found it difficult to maintain lines at the cafeteria during recess, after saying the school would start notifying parents immediately every time a teacher declared a student absent.


The short-to-long principle applies to how writers coordinate elements in a sentence. It suggests you list coordinated elements from short to long, as the sentences below illustrate:

Example 1: Participants in the study noticed no differences between the first slide scientists projected on the white wall [long element] and the real painting [short element].

Example 2: Participants in the study noticed no differences between the real painting [short element] and the first slide scientists projected on the white wall [long element].

The short-to-long principle helps you write sentences that are fluid and easy to read.

Review Questions: Short-to-long

Select the sentences below that illustrate a good use of the short-to-long principle.

  1. A group of five students resolved the test without any assistance, quickly and accurately.
  2. A group of five students resolved the test quickly, accurately, and without any assistance.
  3. The upset instructor decided to punish all the students. She did not distinguish between the students who had completed the assignment late and the ones who had not turned in the assignment.
  4. The upset instructor decided to punish all the students. He did not distinguish between the students who had not turned in the assignment and the ones who had completed the assignment late.
  5. Parents have not been attending the evening meetings because some work late and others cannot come to school three nights in a row.
  6. Parents have not been attending the evening meetings because some cannot come to school three nights in a row and others work late.


In English composition, coherence or cohesion describes how harmoniously different parts of a text connect to one another. Writers show coherence when they make sense of their ideas as a whole. They need to be cohesive on two different levels: the paragraph level and the text level.

Paragraph-level coherence

To achieve paragraph-level coherence, define your topic clearly. The topic is what you write about in a paragraph. You may have learned that the introduction of every paragraph should contain a topic sentence. If you are able to make the sentence topic about the subject, it will be easier for readers to grasp it. Whenever topic and subject align in a sentence, readers will understand what it is about more easily; as a result, your sentence will be more coherent. Compare examples 1 and 2 below:

Example 1: The ability to learn from mistakes is not exclusively human, and it has been found by scientists in many other animal species. This ability has been detected, for example, in dogs, cats, and other domesticated species.

Topic: the ability to learn from mistakes is not only human

Characters: dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals

Although the sentence in Example 1 is understandable, its topic and its characters are not aligned. When they are aligned, notice how much more readable the sentence becomes:

Example 2: Dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals can learn from mistakes, as we humans do [topic and characters]. The discovery of this behaviour in animals has led scientists to conclude it is not exclusively human.

Writers sometimes take a while to get to the topic of their sentences or paragraphs by inserting information that could easily come afterward, or even not appear at all. Consider Example 3:

Example 3: It is important to note that, after years of discrimination and unheard appeals for justice, politicians finally recognized minority groups needed to have their basic rights written as law.

The introductory clause “it is important to note that” is unnecessary. The writer would not have included the main information if it were not important. Also, the time adverbial “after years of discrimination and unheard appeals for justice” could be placed after the main clause, if it is not needed beforehand as a transition or for emphasis. In the following example, we assume it is not needed as such.

Example 4: Politicians finally recognized minority groups needed to have their basic rights written as law after years of discrimination and unheard appeals for justice.

In Example 4, both topic and character come first, and the supporting or secondary information comes after. This strategy creates a more readable and coherent sentence.

Text-level coherence

Coherence also depends on how writers organize their ideas. To keep ideas organized, the thesis statement should function as a map highlighting the organizational pattern of the essay. However, this pattern will affect elements beyond the thesis statement, such as the introduction and body paragraphs. For this reason, you should choose the pattern that works best for your essay as a whole. Take a look at some of the different organizational patterns you may use and what they are good for:

  1. Chronological order: explaining a step-by-step process, narrating a story, narrating an incident or anecdote from earlier to later
  2. Cause and effect: explaining a historical event, explaining a scientific finding or process
  3. Coordinate: explaining the several reasons for a fact or state of affairs

After you have decided on the best organizational pattern for your essay, and your thesis statement is ready, you should ask the following questions:

  1. Does my thesis statement provide the reader with a map of the essay? That is, upon reading my thesis statement, does the reader understand what I am writing about and what my main points are?
  2. In each paragraph, do the examples, facts, or illustrations I use relate to and support the topic?
  3. Does the topic of each paragraph detail one of the points or reasons I included in my thesis statement?

Review Questions: Coherence

Paragraph-level coherence

Rewrite the following paragraph in order to make it coherent. Some sentences require further correction.

  1. I believe that technology can help people more in their lives. Nowadays, automation has become very popular in many areas, including agriculture. Vietnam is still an agricultural country, but it is not helped much by high technology, especially the poor farmers. I hope that, in the future, the farmers will enjoy the benefits of automation for a suitable price. The farmers can use a remote control to run a machine that can help them a lot in farming.

(Hint: First, identify the topic of the paragraph and then make it a topic sentence. Then find the characters. After that, decide which information should come after.)

Text-level coherence

The paragraphs below illustrate the organization pattern of the essays from which they were extracted. Read them and determine which of the three patterns—chronological, cause and effect, and coordinate—they exemplify. After you identify the pattern, write a new paragraph using the same pattern.

  1. Paragraph 1: In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a group of apes were gathered when something unusual happened: A black monolith emerged from the ground. Some of the apes were shocked, and they did not know how to react, while others decided to investigate the strange object. From this incident, the apes learned to throw and to hit with objects. They used this new skill to fight other animals and get food. This was the beginning of humankind.
  2. Paragraph 2: The “American dream” means many different things to many different people. For some, it means religious freedom or the freedom to worship in any way they like without feeling threatened. For others, it is becoming your own boss, a pursuit that just isn’t possible in many countries. For a third group, it is knowing that their hard work will allow their children and grandchildren to have a much better life than they had.
  3. Paragraph 3: Many problems could result from climate change. One of the most serious is the rise of sea levels, which could result in the flooding of low-lying coastal areas in countries such as Egypt and the Netherlands. Another negative effect of climate change is its effect on weather patterns. The changing weather has caused a surge in hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters in many areas of the world. A final issue associated with climate change is how it affects biodiversity. Fish populations, for example, could be impacted by changes in water temperature, while some insects that carry disease might become more common throughout the world.


The voice of a verb determines which elements in the sentence will or will not be in focus. In English, the two types of verb voices are active and passive.

When we use active voice:

  • the source of the action (agent) appears as the subject
  • the receiver of the action (goal) appears as the object

Example: The government [agent] has extended benefits [goal] for the unemployed.

When we use passive voice:

  • the receiver of the action (goal) becomes the subject
  • the source of the action (agent) may or may not appear

Example: Benefits [goal] for the unemployed have been extended (by the government) [agent].

Passive voice is very useful to describe actions whose agents are obvious, not known, or not important. However, in an argumentative essay, passive voice may place your characters at the end of sentences, and this may not be a strong argumentative strategy. In this case, active voice should be used, especially when actions derive from visible characters.

Passive and active voices coexist because each has a distinct function. They allow writers to describe the same phenomenon from two different viewpoints. Writers need to understand the uses of each in order to make informed decisions about when to use either active or passive voice.

Here are a few hints to help you determine which voice may be appropriate in a sentence or description:

  1. If your readers must know who is responsible for the action, choose active voice.

    Example: The CIA should disclose torture documents to the public.

  2. If you do not know who did the action, or this information is either obvious or not important, use passive voice.

    Example: Very expensive jewellery should not be kept at home.

  3. Your choice can also be determined by flow in your text.

    Example: Students must choose if they want makeup classes either right after school or in the evening. The popular football game schedule and not the academic one [new information] may influence their choice more strongly [old information].

    The underlined sentence above is in active voice, and it contains the new piece of information before the old one. In this case, passive voice is a better choice. It will place old information first and increase sentence flow, as the following example shows.

    Example: Students must choose if they want makeup classes either right after school or in the evening. Their choice may be more strongly influenced by the popular football game schedule than by the academic one.

Review Questions: Voice

The verbs in the sentences below are in passive voice. Rewrite the sentences and change the verbs to active voice. Make any other changes as needed.

  1. New skills are learned by students when they are given opportunities by their teachers to take risks.
  2. In Brown’s article, it is argued that the secret prisons project was carried out by the Secret Service to allow high-risk criminals to be questioned without respect to international law.
  3. According to the local newspaper, it is believed that the discussion is polarized by citizens’ beliefs about how much the government should intervene in the economy.


In this chapter’s section on sentence order, we learned how to turn nouns into verbs as a strategy to place characters in focus and increase their agency. What we did was an exercise of de-nominalizing: we were turning nouns into actions. A nominalization is just the opposite, and it occurs when we turn a verb or an adjective into a noun.

Example 1: Bob’s intention was to speak to Kate.

Example 2: Our presentation was about a new plan.

Example 3: We did a survey of 30 people for our study.

Example 4: Jack got the job because of his proficiency in English.

Using nominalization in the wrong context may remove the attention and focus you need for your characters and verbs. Sentences containing too many nominalizations can also end up being too wordy. In order to correct a nominalization, turn a noun back into a verb as per the example above.

Example 1: Bob intended to speak to Kate.

Review Questions: Nominalization

  1. Rewrite examples 2–4 in this section, correcting their nominalizations.

Points to Consider

  1. Definition of tone and style.
    1. Write two sample paragraphs on any of the suggested topics below. One paragraph should display an appropriate tone for a persuasive essay. The other paragraph should display an informal or colloquial tone.
    2. In pairs, exchange paragraphs with a partner. Read your partner’s paragraphs and identify which one was written in an academic tone and which was not.
    3. Suggested topics:
      • Schools should replace books with laptops.
      • Discuss your academic background and achievements.
      • My recipe for stress management.
  2. Word choice.
    1. When you are not sure about the meaning of a word you want to use, how can you figure out whether or not to use it?
    2. What is the difference between denotative and connotative meanings?
  3. Gender bias.
    1. Name and provide examples of three different strategies to avoid gender bias.
  4. Characters and actions.
    1. When sentences emphasize clear characters and actions, what difference does it make to readers?
    2. How can you tell if the characters and actions in your sentences have been properly emphasized?
  5. Old-before-new.
    1. How does the old-before-new principle help readers?
    2. How does this principle help connect ideas and sentences to one another?
  6. Coherence.
    1. Explain paragraph-level coherence.
    2. Describe two organizational patterns you can use to plan and write a paragraph.
  7. Voice.
    1. When is it appropriate to use passive voice?
    2. When is it not appropriate to use passive voice?


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Building Blocks of Academic Writing by Carellin Brooks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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