Overtone vs. Undertone – What’s the Difference?

Are you trying to figure out the key differences between “overtone” and “undertone”? Besides the prefixes (over- and under-), there are a few things you need to know.

Luckily, this article is here to help! We’ve covered all the main differences you need to know to ensure you don’t get confused!

Overtone vs. Undertone – What’s the Difference?

An overtone conveys a suggested meaning by reading between the lines. For example, you may threaten someone in a neutral tone while still conveying an intimidating overtone. An undertone conveys a suggested meaning by the way you say the words. It’s a method used in spoken English.

These examples will demonstrate the differences:

  • You should be careful of the overtone that might come from aggravating people like that.
  • I’m not sure I understand your undertone. Why did you say it in such a frightening way?

The simplest difference tends to be that “overtone” is written while “undertone” is spoken.

Keep reading to learn more about each form. We’ve covered them in detail to help you figure out which one to use.


An overtone is a way to suggest meaning by allowing the reader to make their own assumptions. The words you write might say one thing, but the reader could infer another thing based on the way they interpret your words.

Here are some quick examples to help:

  • There’s a threatening overtone here. It sounds innocent, but the content of what he’s saying is dangerous.
  • I think you missed the overtone in the text. He was trying to sound sarcastic rather than serious.

As you can see, “overtone” relates to interpretation. It’s something that readers can add to writing without being told to do so.

The definition of “overtone,” according to The Cambridge Dictionary, is “something that is suggested, but is not clearly stated.”


An undertone is another form of suggestion. This time, the suggestion comes from the way someone says a word, phrase, or sentence. It relates to the manner of utterance, allowing the listener to interpret the words in their own way.

Check out these examples to help you with it:

  • She gave her speech with worrying undertones. Do you know what’s wrong with her?
  • What’s with all the serious undertones that he’s conveying? I don’t like them!

As you can see, “undertone” mainly relates to spoken English. It’s something you’ll have an easier time understanding when you can hear someone uttering words rather than reading them on a page.

The definition of “undertone,” according to The Cambridge Dictionary, is “a particular but not obvious characteristic that a piece of writing or speech, an event, or a situation has.”

Most of the examples from The Cambridge Dictionary relate to speeches and the spoken word. That’s why it’s so common to hear “undertone” in such situations.


“Overtones” and “undertones” allow people to interpret information in different ways.

An overtone generally relates to written English. It suggests that the reader can interpret the meaning of a sentence based on the choice of words.

An undertone typically relates to spoken English. It suggests that someone says words in a specific way to convey a certain emotion.