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July 14, 2016

The Origins of APA Style

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by Anne Breitenbach 

APA Style is older than virtually all of its users—if you were born after 1929, then APA Style is older than you are. But just because APA Style is nearing its 10th decade doesn’t mean that its origins need to be lost to the mists of time. This post will share some of the origins of APA Style.

The first glimmer of what has become APA Style emerged in a seven-page article published by the Conference of Editors and Business Managers of Anthropological and Psychological Periodicals following a 2-day meeting in Washington, DC. This article appeared in one of psychology’s preeminent journals, APA’s own Psychological Bulletin.

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A prime incentive for publishing that first article was to save publishers money and time, as submitted manuscripts were often too long, inconsistently formatted, and wandered through their content. The authors were responding to a real need and genuinely trying to help would-be authors as well as improve the quality of the submissions. That they were aware that setting guidelines has a substantial and direct effect on those would-be authors is evident, as is conveyed by the downright diffident tone of their opening paragraphs.

The committee realizes that it neither has, nor wishes to assume, any authority in dictating to authors, publishers or editors; but it suggests the following recommendations for use as a standard of procedure, to which exceptions would doubtless be necessary, but 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)

In those seven pages you can find the core of the APA Style you know and love. Authors are urged to brevity in making their arguments; use of headings to impose logical structure; and subdivision into an introduction, statement of results, and discussion. There is a discussion of what to cite and how to cite a reference, and space is given to the use of tables and figures. Other familiar elements are not yet present and will be added over time. For example, there is no guidance on writing style or grammar—beyond the exhortation that those who are incompetent should get help. Reference types were few, and so the explosion of reference formats lies in the future. Nor would you have found instruction on how to avoid plagiarism or use bias-free language to write sensitively about participants or people in general.

As the APA Style Publication Manual evolved into its current sixth edition, the content has expanded and the tone has become more confident of a right, even a responsibility, to set standards, at least in APA’s own journals. In the future, especially given the explosion of digital technologies now used to disseminate content, we will continue striving to ensure that clear communication continues.

Reference

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0071487

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