by Anne Breitenbach
We know. It’s true: Most high schools teach MLA Style. You labored over it, you learned to tolerate if not love it—and now, bam, you get to college, and as soon as you begin to take psychology, or education, or business, or nursing, or whatever classes, you need to learn APA Style. Why? Why can’t all disciplines just convene a convention and hammer out one style that fits all needs?
It’s an attractive idea, but can you imagine representatives from all different studies gathering, United Nations like, to reach a consensus agreement? "Spell out the first name in the reference!," cries the MLA advocate. "No, use initials with a period after each initial," answers the ambassador from APA. "Initials are good, but no period, no space between!," counters the distinguished diplomat from AMA. The fight would rage into the night; heck, those fights would rage into the next 1,001 (spelled out?, comma?) nights on that and many another question. Use "and" or "&" and in what context? How shall we indicate pagination? What should the capitalization of a title in a reference be?
Yes, learning a style is a complicated and confusing process. Even within a given style, as times change, styles must adapt and its users must adapt with it. Needing different styles for different disciplines compounds that labor. All those picayune guideline differences aside, is there value to a specific style that makes it worth the pain?
One factor, of course, is that using a given style marks its user as a member of a specific culture. The corollary to that is how adept users are at using this "language" signals their expertise within that field (e.g., if you walk like a duck, quack like a duck, and swim like a duck, a fortiori, you’re a duck ). In addition, there are historical reasons at the heart of a style that can help you understand why it was created and that give shape and reason to its evolution. That’s certainly true of APA Style. Read the original 1929 Psychological Bulletin journal article (Bentley et al., 1929) in which it was introduced—it won’t take you long, it’s only seven pages—and you’ll see what I mean. Reading the suggested guidelines makes clear they were developed to address specific problems of exasperated journal editors: Too many authors were submitting wordy, messy, subjective, logically unpersuasive manuscripts and not adequately addressing the research that already existed on the issue they were writing about. Review and revision were expensive in editorial time, and overlong and wordy manuscripts wasted precious journal space.
Time passed, and what began as a guide specifically for authors seeking to publish their manuscripts in APA’s own journals became more widely used at the college level in the social sciences because it addressed equally important needs there. Using APA Style marks you as a member of a scientific community that uses and values concise expression, clarity of thought, and the value of attribution as an information ethic. In short, it marks you as a duck of the social sciences sort. Welcome to the pond!
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. doi:10.1037/h0071487