53 posts categorized "Grammar and usage"

October 13, 2016

Hyphenation Station: Using Compound Adjectives

Cmerenda profile pictureby Claire Merenda

Most of us know what an adjective is. And many of us might remember learning about compound words, too. But what is a compound adjective?

Compound adjectives are two or more connected words acting as one modifier (e.g., client-centered or all-inclusive). These words work together to create a single concept that modifies a noun. Hyphenating this particular part of speech can be a challenge, so APA Style has some basic guidelines to follow in these situations.

Fingers-holding-puzzle-smWhen the compound adjective comes before the noun it modifies, and the meaning of the term could be misread, a hyphen is often needed to make the meaning clear (e.g., all inclusive classrooms has a different meaning that all-inclusive classrooms). One hyphen can make all the difference in clarity. For example, if a professor asks a class to write nine page reports, a well-placed hyphen would clarify if the students should each write nine separate reports about a page (nine “page reports”) or each write reports that are nine pages in length (nine-page reports). The correctly placed hyphen (nine-page reports) indicates that nine and page create a single concept, and that nine-page jointly modifies reports. A simple hyphen can make a student’s day.

However, if the compound adjective comes after the noun, the relationships between the words may be intelligible without a hyphen (e.g., counseling that is client centered). As a writer, if you’re struggling with hyphens in long modifier chains, moving the modifier to the end of the phrase can help untangle more obscure or dense sentences. If the professor in the previous example had asked for reports that are nine pages long, there would likely be no misunderstanding.

More examples:

Modifiers Before Noun

Modifiers After Noun

well-known researcher

a researcher that is well known

t-test results results from t tests

full-scale investigation

investigation on a full scale

multiple-author citation citation with multiple authors
in-press paper a paper that is in press 

Note: You don’t need a hyphen when multiple modifiers work independently to modify a noun (e.g., critical social issues). This is no longer a case of a compound, but rather two independent adjectives. Here’s a good test: Apply each modifier independently to the noun. If the original meaning is maintained, then it’s not a compound modifier.

Example: “Always strive for a concise writing tone in your research.” Is it a concise tone and a writing tone? Yes. A hyphen is not needed because concise and writing independently modify the noun tone.

Example: “Be sure to utilize bias-free language.” Is it bias language and free language? No. A hyphen is needed, because bias and free are both essential to convey the concept bias-free.

October 05, 2016

Hyphenation Station: The Hyphenation of Prefixes in APA Style

Chelsea blog 2 by Chelsea Lee

Most words with prefixes are written without a hyphen after the prefix in APA Style. The table below contains some of the most common prefixes, examples of correct usage, and examples of exceptions. A full list of prefixes (and suffixes) to which this rule applies appears in Table 4.2 of the Publication Manual


















post-graduate-level students









re-pair [to pair again]




A hyphen should be used with a prefix under the following conditions:

  • The word could be misread without a hyphen (e.g., re-pair, meaning to pair again, vs. repair, meaning to fix).
  • The double vowels aa, ii, oo, or uu would occur without a hyphen (e.g., anti-intellectual is correct, not antiintellectual).
  • The word that follows the hyphen is capitalized (e.g., un-American).
  • The word that follows the hyphen begins with a numeral (e.g., mid-2016).
  • The word is shown as permanently hyphenated in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary (e.g., pro-choice).
  • A prefix is being added to a compound word that is already hyphenated (e.g., adding post- to graduate-level students creates post-graduate-level students, but if the phrase is just graduate students [no hyphen] then adding post- as a prefix gives you the regular hyphenless postgraduate students).

For more information on hyphenation principles, see Section 4.13 of the Publication Manual, our FAQ, or leave a comment below. And stay tuned for more posts in our hyphenation station series!




May 02, 2016

Principles of Writing: Passive and Active Voice

Chelsea blog 2
by Chelsea Lee

Few topics in scholarly writing raise as many questions as passive voice. Many writers have gotten the impression that passive voice isn’t allowed in APA Style or that if it is allowed, it is to be avoided at all costs. However, that’s an oversimplification. The reality is that sometimes the passive voice is appropriate, but many writers overuse it.

This post will show you how to identify the passive and active voices, explain the advantages and disadvantages of each, and help you choose the appropriate voice for your writing. Both passive and active voices are likely to appear in the same paper; it is just a matter of choosing the right voice given what you want to express.

Identifying Voice

Here is the classic formula for identifying the passive voice:

A “to be” verb + a past participle + the word by.

  • Active voice: The lion ate the mouse.

Lion eats mouse 1

  • Passive voice: The mouse was eaten by the lion.

Lion eats mouse 2

In the active voice sentence, the actor (the lion) is presented first, followed by the action (eating) and then the object of that action (the mouse). In the passive voice sentence, the order is reversed.

There are two caveats to this formula:

  1. Sometimes the word by is left out of a passive voice sentence but is still implicit in the meaning, for example, in a sentence like “This topic was addressed in the paper.” If you can ask “by whom?” and come up with a coherent answer (such as “by the researchers” or “by Smith”), then the sentence is still in the passive voice even though the word by does not appear. 

  2. Not all instances of to be indicate the passive voice, as in a sentence like “The participants were hungry.” Asking “hungry by whom?” makes no sense, so this sentence is not in the passive voice even though it has a to be verb.

Advantages of the Active Voice

The Publication Manual says to “prefer the active voice” (p. 77), and there are two main reasons why. First, the active voice clearly lays out the chain of events: Lion eats mouse. With a passive voice sentence, the reader must wait until the end of the sentence to discover who was responsible for the action. When used in a long sentence, the passive voice may confuse readers. Second, the active voice usually creates shorter sentences. Although your paper should include a variety of sentence lengths, shorter sentences are usually easier to understand than longer ones.

Here are two common cases in which you should prefer the active voice rather than the passive voice:

  1. Use the active voice to describe your own actions. It is completely permissible, and in fact encouraged, to use the first person to describe your own actions in APA Style. Use I to refer to yourself if you worked alone and we if you worked as part of a group (see PM 3.09 for more).
    • Active voice: I conducted an experiment about body image.
    • Passive voice: An experiment about body image was conducted.

  2. Use the active voice to acknowledge the participation of people in research studies, which is an important part of reporting research (see Guideline 3 on p. 73 of the Publication Manual for more on this). For example, researchers often administer surveys to participants or observe them for certain behaviors. Show with your sentences how participants completed actions, rather than how researchers acted upon them, as in these examples:
    • Active voice: The students completed the surveys.
    • Passive voice: The surveys were completed by the students.

Advantages of the Passive Voice

The Publication Manual also states that “the passive voice is acceptable in expository writing [writing used to give information on a topic or to explain something] and when you want to focus on the object or recipient of the action rather than on the actor” (p. 77). Here is an example of appropriate passive voice:

  • First-year students have been underserved by the university administration.

In this sentence, the focus is on first-year students. Depending on the context, this may be exactly what you are going for. The active voice version (“The university administration has underserved first-year students”) puts the focus on the university administration, which is not necessarily what you want. Remember, APA Style doesn’t prohibit the passive voice; it just requires that you use it wisely.

Strategies for Choosing the Appropriate Voice

Both the active and passive voices have uses in scholarly writing, so employ them appropriately. However, newer writers especially tend to overuse the passive voice, which can lead to clumsy, long, and confusing sentences. With that in mind, we recommend the following:

  1. Prefer the active voice over the passive voice to create clear, concise sentences; however, remember that the passive voice can also be an appropriate choice under certain circumstances.

  2. Identify cases of the passive voice by looking for instances of the to be verb + a past participle + the word by.

  3. Try rewriting a passive voice sentence in the active voice to determine which voice more clearly communicates your ideas.

For more on this topic, see section 3.18 of the Publication Manual.

Leave a comment if you've got questions that you want to be answered by us.

December 10, 2015

Contractions in Formal Writing: What's Allowed, What's Not

Chelsea blog 2by Chelsea Lee

Asking whether you should use contractions in formal academic writing is sort of like asking whether you should wear a bathing suit to a party—it depends on the type of party. Is it a pool party or a fancy dinner? Therein lies your answer.

Likewise, when it comes to writing, some ways of expressing yourself are more formal than others, and different contexts come with different expectations about what is appropriate. On the informal end of the spectrum you have texts between friends. In the middle of the spectrum you have things like these blog posts. On the formal end of the spectrum, you have the scholarly writing you do for classroom assignments, theses and dissertations, and publications.

Contractions are a part of informal writing. Thus, avoid contractions in scholarly writing, except for under the following circumstances:

  • If you are reproducing a direct quotation that contains a contraction (e.g., a quotation from a research participant), leave the contraction as-is.
  • If you are writing about contractions (e.g., in a paper about language), naturally you must be able to use contractions as linguistic examples.
  • If you are reproducing an idiom that contains a contraction (e.g., “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”), leave the contraction (no need for “do not count your chickens…”).
  • If you are making an off-the-cuff or informal remark within an otherwise formal paper, it is okay to use a contraction as part of your writing voice. You might find this kind of remark in a footnote or a parenthetical statement. Scientific writing should be formal but it doesn’t have to be stuffy. It is okay to have a moment of informality as long as the overall tone is appropriately formal.

Do you have additional questions on the use of contractions? Ask them here!


November 16, 2015

The Use of Singular “They” in APA Style

Chelsea blog 2by Chelsea Lee

Dear Style Experts,

Can I use the singular “they” in APA Style? Is it okay to use “they” or “their” to refer to a single person, or should I say “he or she” or “his or hers” instead?

—A Reader


Dear Reader,

In APA Style, whether it’s appropriate to use singular they depends on the context.

The Context of Gender Diversity

APA supports the choice of communities to determine their own descriptors. Thus, when transgender and gender nonconforming people (including agender, genderqueer, and other communities) use the singular they as their pronoun, writers should likewise use the singular they when writing about them. Although the usage isn’t explicitly outlined in the Publication Manual, APA’s guidelines for bias-free language clearly state that writers should be sensitive to labels:

Respect people’s preferences; call people what they prefer to be called. Accept that preferences change with time and that individuals within groups often disagree about the designations they prefer. Make an effort to determine what is appropriate for your situation; you may need to ask your participants which designations they prefer, particularly when preferred designations are being debated within groups. (APA Publication Manual, 2010, p. 72; see also the supplemental material to PM § 3.12)

Thus, choose the appropriate pronoun for the people you are writing about. Note, however, that many transgender people use the pronoun that matches their gender identity or gender expression, which would be she for a transgender woman and he for a transgender man. Other possible terms are noted in the supplemental material.

When writing with the singular they, use the forms they, them, their, and themselves.

The Context of General Use

The singular they is also commonly used to refer to a person whose gender is irrelevant or unknown—for example, imagine the sentence "The participant indicated their preferences." However, most formal writing and style guides, including the APA Publication Manual, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the AP Stylebook, do not currently support this usage, deeming it too informal and/or ungrammatical.

Instead, APA recommends several alternatives to the general singular they, including the following:

  • Make the sentence plural: "Participants indicated their preferences."
  • Rewrite the sentence to replace the pronoun with an article (a, an, or the): "The participant indicated a preference."
  • Rewrite the sentence to drop the pronoun: "The participant indicated preferences."
  • Combine both singular pronouns (he or she, she or he, his or her, her or his, etc.): "The participant indicated his or her preferences." (However, avoid overusing this strategy, as it can become cumbersome upon many repetitions.)

These alternatives are also available for you to use when writing in the context of gender diversity if you would prefer them or if you are unsure of the appropriate pronoun to use.

Other alternatives to the singular they are not recommended:

  • Avoid combination constructions like s/he, (s)he, and he/she because they can look awkward and distracting to the reader.
  • Do not use either he or she alone to refer to a generic individual—"use of either pronoun unavoidably suggests that specific gender to the reader" (PM § 3.12).
  • Do not alternate between he and she (e.g., using he in one sentence and she in the next), as this can also become confusing and distracting to the reader.

The Future of Singular They

The use of singular they has received a lot of attention in recent years, and the tide seems to be turning in favor of using it more generally, not just in the context of gender diversity. After all, the usage addresses a real need for a gender-neutral, singular, third-person pronoun in the English language. Indeed, some magazines and newspapers have officially endorsed the broad use of singular they in their pages.

It’s possible that APA might directly endorse the singular they in the future, but that decision lies in the hands of the task forces and committees that craft and approve the Publication Manual, not just in the hands of the writers of this blog.

In the meantime, we hope that this post clarifies the current ways in which it is appropriate to use the singular they in APA Style. You may also be interested to read APA's Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People, which discusses these issues in more detail and provides a glossary of terms and definitions.

We welcome your thoughts and feedback on this matter and hope you will share them with us in the comments below.

October 28, 2015

An Abbreviations FAQ

Chelsea blog 2
by Chelsea Lee

This post will address how to use FAQ-1200
abbreviations in APA Style—specifically, how to use acronyms, which are abbreviations made up of the first letters of each word in a phrase. Consider it a FAQ about abbreviations! You can find abbreviations discussed in the Publication Manual in section 4.22 (starting on p. 106).

Click a question below to jump straight to its answer. 

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When should I use an abbreviation?

Use abbreviations sparingly and only when they will help readers understand your work. Ask yourself these questions each time you consider using a particular abbreviation:

  • Is the reader familiar with the abbreviation?
    • Use an existing, accepted abbreviation if one exists, because familiarity helps understanding. If a standard abbreviation does not exist, then you can create your own.
  • Will you use the abbreviation at least three times in the paper?
    • Use an abbreviation at least three times in a paper if you are going to use it at all. If you won’t use it three times, then spell out the term every time. The reader might have a hard time remembering what the abbreviation means if you use it infrequently.
  • Would spelling out the term every time be overly repetitive and cumbersome?
    • Use abbreviations to avoid cumbersome repetition and enhance understanding, not just as a writing shortcut. For example, it is usually easier to read a two-word phrase than it is to remember the meaning of a two-letter abbreviation. Longer phrases make better candidates for abbreviation.
  • How many total abbreviations do you have in the paper?
    • There’s no hard line of how many abbreviations is too many, but writing is generally easier to understand when most words are spelled out than when it is overflowing with abbreviations. Only abbreviate when it helps the reader.

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How do I introduce an abbreviation in the text?

The first time you use an abbreviation in the text, present both the spelled-out version and the short form.

When the spelled-out version first appears in the narrative of the sentence, put the abbreviation in parentheses after it:

  • Example: We studied attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

When the spelled-out version first appears in parentheses, put the abbreviation in brackets after it:

  • Example: The diagnosis (i.e., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]) was confirmed via behavioral observation.

After you define an abbreviation (regardless of whether it is in parentheses), use only the abbreviation. Do not alternate between spelling out the term and abbreviating it.

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How do I abbreviate group authors in in-text citations and reference list entries?

If your reference has a group author, the name of the group can sometimes be abbreviated—for example, American Psychological Association can be abbreviated to APA. You are not obligated to abbreviate the name of a group author, but you can if the abbreviation would help avoid cumbersome repetition and will appear more than three times in the paper.

As with other abbreviations, spell out the name of the group upon first mention in the text and then provide the abbreviation.

If the name of the group first appears in the narrative, put the abbreviation, a comma, and the year for the citation in parentheses after it.

  • Example: The American Psychological Association (APA, 2011) suggested that parents talk to their children about family finances in age-appropriate ways.

If the name of the group first appears in parentheses, put the abbreviation in brackets after it, followed by a comma and the year for the citation.

  • Example: Children should learn about family finances in age-appropriate ways (American Psychological Association [APA], 2011).

In the reference list entry, do not include the abbreviation for the group author. Instead, spell out the full name of the group.

Correct reference entry:

American Psychological Association. (2011). Dollars and sense: Talking to your children about the economy. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/learning/enhance-memory.aspx

Incorrect reference entry:

American Psychological Association (APA). (2011). Dollars and sense: Talking to your children about the economy. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/learning/enhance-memory.aspx

If you have several references by the same group author, you only need to abbreviate the name once (see here for how to handle references with the same author and date). Note that if two different groups would abbreviate to the same form (e.g., both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association abbreviate to APA), you cannot use the abbreviation in your paper—instead you must spell out the term every time to avoid ambiguity. 

An exception to abbreviations in the reference list is when works have been published using abbreviations as part of the author, title, or source. Retain these abbreviations because the reader will need them to retrieve the source (you also do not need to define them—just present them as-is). See more about this in our post on cite what you see.

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How do I present an abbreviation in conjunction with an in-text citation?

Sometimes an abbreviation is presented along with an in-text citation. For example, you might cite a test or measure that has an abbreviation and then provide its citation (for a common case, here is how to cite the DSM-5).

If the spelled-out version of the term appears in the narrative for the first time, put the abbreviation and the author–date citation in parentheses after it, separated by a semicolon. Do not use back-to-back parentheses.

  • Correct: We assessed depression using the Beck Depression Inventory–II (BDI-II; Beck, Brown, & Steer, 1996).
  • Incorrect: We used the Beck Depression Inventory—II (BDI-II) (Beck, Steer, & Brown, 1996).

If the spelled-out version of the term appears in parentheses for the first time, put the abbreviation in brackets after it, followed by a semicolon and the author–date citation.  

  • Example: Our assessment of depression (as measured via scores on the Beck Depression Inventory–II [BDI-II]; Beck, Steer, & Brown, 1996) showed significant incidence of this disorder in the population.

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Can I use abbreviations in the title of a paper?

Avoid using abbreviations in the title of a paper. Writing out the full term in the title will ensure potential readers know exactly what you mean, and if your article is formally published, it will ensure it is accurately indexed. 

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Can I use abbreviations in the running head?

There is no official guidance on whether to use abbreviations in the running head. We recommend that you avoid them, unless the abbreviation is well-known and there is no alternative running head that would be better. If you do use an abbreviation in a running head, you can use it straightaway without definition. Instead, define the abbreviation the first time you use it in the text. 

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Can I use abbreviations in the abstract?

In general, it is not necessary to use abbreviations in the abstract because the abstract is so short. However, if the abbreviation would help the reader recognize a term or find your article via search, then it is permissible to include an abbreviation in the abstract, even if it is not used three times. When you use an abbreviation in both the abstract and the text, define it in both places upon first use.  

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Can I use abbreviations in headings?

The Publication Manual does not offer official guidance on whether to use abbreviations in headings. We recommend that you avoid them—for example, the reader may skim the paper before reading it in full, and abbreviations in headings may be difficult to understand out of context. So, if a term you intend to abbreviate appears in a heading (e.g., the name of a test or measure), spell out the term in the heading and then when it first appears in the text, spell it out again and define it there. 

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Can I use abbreviations in tables and figures?

Yes, you can use abbreviations in tables and figures. All abbreviations used in tables and figures should be defined in the table note or figure caption, respectively, even though the abbreviations will be also be defined in the text if they are used there. The purpose of defining abbreviations in the table note or figure caption is that if other authors reuse your graphical display in a future paper, the definitions of the terms will be attached. Additionally, many readers will skim an article before reading it closely, and defining abbreviations in tables and figures will allow the readers to understand the abbreviations immediately.

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Do all abbreviations needs to be defined?

Not all abbreviations need to be defined. Consult Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary to determine what to do: If the abbreviation has the designation abbr. after it in the dictionary, that means it needs to be defined; if it does not have this designation, the abbreviation is considered a word on its own and can be used straight off the bat, without definition. You also do not need to define abbreviations for units of measurement (e.g., cm for centimeters, hr for hour).

  • Examples of abbreviations that are considered words: IQ, REM, HIV, AIDS, FAQ

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How do I use the words and an before abbreviations?

Use the article that matches the way the abbreviation is pronounced—an before a vowel sound and a before a consonant sound. Some abbreviations are pronounced as words (e.g., RAM), and some abbreviations are pronounced letter-by-letter, which is also called an initialism (e.g., HMO, IQ). If you are unsure of the pronunciation of an abbreviation, look it up in the dictionary or ask a colleague. If an abbreviation has multiple pronunciations, use the first one shown in the dictionary entry.

  • Examples: an FBI agent, a DSM-5 disorder, a U.S. citizen, an IQ score

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Are abbreviations written with periods?

Generally, do not use periods in abbreviations. Some exceptions are that you should use periods in the abbreviations for United States and United Kingdom when these terms are used as adjectives (don’t abbreviate them if they are used as nouns). And if you have created an identity-concealing label for a participant, use a period after each letter.

  • Examples: U.S. Census Bureau, U.K. population, participant R.E.C.

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How do I make an abbreviation plural?

To make an abbreviation plural, add an –s (or –es, for abbreviations ending in s already). Do not add an apostrophe. For more, see our dedicated post on plural abbreviations and numbers.

  • Examples: IQs, RTs, CSes.

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I don't see my question!

Got more questions about abbreviations? Ask us in a comment!

May 22, 2014

“Me, Me, Me”: How to Talk About Yourself in an APA Style Paper

Chelsea blog 2
by Chelsea Lee

Any sleep-deprived student knows those papers don’t write themselves. A living, breathing, person must produce the words on the page, and in certain contexts, you have to acknowledge that fact in the text itself. Let’s go through several cases of how to write about yourself in an APA Style paper.

General Use of I or We

It is totally acceptable to write in the first person in an APA Style paper. If you did something, say, “I did it”—there’s no reason to hide your own agency by saying “the author [meaning you] did X” or to convolute things by using the passive “X was done [meaning done by you].”  If you’re writing a paper alone, use I as your pronoun. If you have coauthors, use we.

However, avoid using we to refer to broader sets of people—researchers, students, psychologists, Americans, people in general, or even all of humanity—without specifying who you mean (a practice called using the editorial “we”). This can introduce ambiguity into your writing.

For example, if you are writing about the history of attachment theory, write “Researchers have studied attachment since the 1970s” rather than “We have studied attachment since the 1970s.” The latter may allow the reader to erroneously believe that you have personally studied attachment for the last 40 years (which may be difficult for those dear readers under 40).

If you want to refer to yourself as well as a broader group, specify to whom we refers. Write “As young adults in college, we are tasked with learning to live independent lives” not “We are tasked with learning to live independent lives.” By stating that we refers here to young adults in college, readers understand the context (which could otherwise be any number of groups tasked with the same, such as individuals with developmental disabilities or infants).

Colorful people

Use of I or We in Personal Response or Reaction Papers

A common assignment in psychology classes is the personal response or reaction paper. The specifications of these assignments vary, but what they all have in common is that you are supposed to critique and/or give your personal thoughts about something you have read. This necessitates using the first person. In the professional psychology world, a similar type of paper exists, and it is called a Comment or a Reply.

The excerpt below illustrates how the first person should be used to express personal opinions. Here, South and DeYoung (2013), the authors, respond to papers by Hopwood (2013) and Skodol and Krueger (2013).

Research seems to be converging on a trait-dimensional system that can capture the majority of personality pathology, and this phenotypic work is supported by extant behavior genetic findings. We must ask, though, whether the ability to capture all multivariate personality pathology space with one structural model is sufficient for capturing disordered personality. Hopwood (2013) rightly pointed out that there is something unique about a personality disorder (PD) above and beyond traits, but in the DSM–5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2011) proposal the only difference between describing someone with a constellation of pathological traits and a PD “type” is the Criterion A requirement of impairment in self and interpersonal functioning. Skodol and Krueger (2013), partly in jest, suggested that PDs could conceivably be diagnosed on Axis I. We get the joke but worry that in an attempt to ameliorate the problems with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; DSM–IV–TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) PDs a new system risks losing the forest (PD) for the trees (traits).

Notice how the authors state their opinions and reactions: They use plain, straightforward language. If you are tasked with writing a personal response paper, you can do the same. The authors have also used the pronoun we because there are two of them; if a single author had written this passage, she or he would have used the pronoun I.


It’s less hard than you might think to write about yourself in APA Style. Own your opinions by using the appropriate pronouns. If you have further questions about this topic, please leave a comment.


South, S. C., & DeYoung, N. J. (2013). The remaining road to classifying personality pathology in the DSM–5: What behavior genetics can add. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 4, 291–292. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/per0000005

May 02, 2014

But I Already Learned MLA! Why Do I Need APA Style?

Anne breitenbach



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
Graduate duck

April 10, 2014

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (or Is It Lay?)

Daisiesby Stefanie

Here is my dog. Rooster_1
His name is Rooster. Rooster is a grammatical dog, and he is going to help me illustrate the difference between lay and lie.

Lay down, Rooster!



Hmm, he doesn’t seem to have done anything. That’s because he’s waiting for me to tell him what to lay down. The verb lay requires a direct object, something that can be laid down (a toy, an egg, his spiffy bandana), but I didn’t specify, so he was right to wait for clarification.




OK, let’s try lie. Lie down, Rooster!  

Rooster_2Good boy! When I tell him to lie down, I’m telling him that he needs to get himself down. Now that he’s down, he’s snoozing away. I really am going to let a sleeping dog lie. (Consider the titular question answered!)

Now let’s change tenses to talk about what Rooster did. Here’s where the word choices get tricky. Laid is the past tense of lay; lay is the past tense of lie. So, When I told Rooster to lay down, he didn’t know what I wanted laid down. When I told Rooster to lie down, he lay down.


Finally, laid is the past participle form of lay, and lain is the past participle form of lie.

Rooster had laid his rawhide chew in the ivy patch at the corner of the house.

Rooster has lain there for a while; should I wake him up?

The next time you are debating whether to use lay or lie, it may help to picture the standing dog who is waiting for instructions on what he should lay down or the lying dog who obediently followed the order to lie down.

Photo credits: @2013 by Stefanie Lazer.

March 27, 2014

Over the Hedge

Daisiesby Stefanie

I am as guilty of hedging as anyone here, if not more so. I am not, by nature, a decisive person. Couple that with work for almost two decades in scientific (Strike 1) writing (Strike 2), and I can tell you that the “facts” known today do not necessarily match those of yesterday.

Oh, oh, look what I did there! My first hedge! Using quotation marks to soften or make ironic something that does not need such treatment should be avoided.

And there, I just did it again! The words should be take the sting out of avoided, don’t they? But being to the point is helpful here. Avoid using quotation marks to hedge. There, that is much clearer. Also avoid using words like should, could, sometimes, may, and others to hedge on a point that does not need hedging.

Does not need hedging? Is that another hedge? No. The thing about scientific and scholarly writing is that hypotheses are always being tested. Theories are pushed to their limits with different experiments, be they physical or thought experiments, which are then reported in articles and books. Hedge I have yet to see an article or book end with the words “no more research is needed on this topic.” Sometimes experimental results are inconclusive. Sometimes their meaning is not clear under current paradigms. Sometimes the results are as clear as the nose on your face. When you are writing about your research, state confidently what you are confident about and qualify what you are not as certain of (or what you are certain is not certain; see my use of the word sometimes in the three previous sentences). Take time to think about what elements of your article fall into each category and present them accordingly.

When talking about other authors’ work, take your linguistic cues from them if you are equally convinced of the accuracy of their claims and conclusions. For example, let’s say I’m (a) in a fictional world and (b) writing about the Ark of the Covenant. As part of the research for my paper, I read an article in Archeology Today in which some guy named Henry Jones, Jr., says unequivocally that he found the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Jerusalem. Maybe I’ve met Dr. Jones at a conference and I feel confident that he’s a stand-up guy, or maybe I’ve read his other work and that has all seemed legitimate, or maybe his article contains so many facts and credible sources that I’m convinced he’s telling the truth. When I am mentioning Dr. Jones’s claim, which I believe, in my paper, I am not going to say, “Jones (1963) suggests that the Ark of the Covenant was found in 1936” but “In an article published decades ago, Jones (1963) announced that in 1936, he found the Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Jerusalem.” In fact, the second example works even if I do not believe Dr. Jones’s claim: He did make that announcement in his 1963 article (he did in my fictional world, anyway). The point is, in this situation, there is no reason to hedge. “Jones (1963) found and lost the Ark of the Convenant in 1936” would be a way to uncritically report this key point from Jones’s article. If I take a more skeptical approach to Dr. Jones’s article, I can express that, too: “Jones (1963) claimed to have found and lost the Ark of the Convenant in 1936, but no other evidence supports this assertion and, in fact, the U.S. Government vehemently denied its alleged involvement.” I have clearly stated Jones’s claim, and I have countered that claim with some big grains of salt, to painfully strain a metaphor.

If the authors of your source articles are not committing to definite conclusions, though, follow their lead. If Henry Jones, Sr., writes, “I have reason to believe that Alexandretta is the starting point for the path to the Holy Grail, but I have yet to find conclusive proof,” it is misleading to report, “Jones (1937) reported Alexandretta is the city in which the Holy Grail journey starts.” It is not up to you to clean up someone else’s hedging. In fact, it’s best if you report the uncertainty. To put it in perspective, the difference between “I think the parachute is packed correctly” and “the parachute is packed correctly” is huge. Which parachute will you choose to strap on?

Hedge only if you must. Otherwise, be as decisive in your writing as your sources and circumstances allow.

Photo: Falombini/iStock/Thinkstock.

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