Why Does APA Style Use Hanging Indents?
Dear Style Experts,
I’m curious about how certain things got to be that way in APA Style. For example, how did you decide on using a hanging indent for references? Does this improve the readability of the paragraph, compared with some other way of offsetting the information? Or is there some other advantage to the hanging indent, beyond readability?
—Chris in Canada
To answer that question, we need to set the dial on the Wayback Machine for 1894, when the first issue of Psychological Review (APA’s first journal) was published. As you can see from the snapshot below, the references in that issue were not exactly formatted in the APA Style we know and love, but they do use a hanging indent. So you might say that the hanging indent is part of our DNA.
APA Style (like every other reference style) is less like a purpose-built machine and more like a set of family traditions. Some features, such as the DOI, have been added over the years for carefully articulated reasons; others, like the hanging indent, appeared unannounced. Taken together, they constitute “a standard of procedure . . . to which reference might be made in cases of doubt, and which might be cited to authors for their general guidance in the preparation of scientific articles” (Bentley et al., 1929, p. 57).
When Bentley et al. wrote that sentence in 1929, they probably did not suspect that the standard they outlined in seven pages would grow to embrace six editions, several revisions, and a host of supporting products, including this blog. I think it’s pretty cool to be part of something that has its roots in the Victorian Era and its head in the 21st century. That’s my kind of family tree!
Bentley, M., Peerenboom, C. A., Hodge, F. W., Passano, E. B., Warren,
H. C., & Washburn, M. F. (1929). Instructions in regard to
preparation of manuscript. Psychological Bulletin, 26, 57-63.
Butler, N. B. (1894). Psychological literature: Educational. Psychological
Review, 1, 82-83. doi:10.1037/h0067178