April 24, 2014

Why Does APA Style Use Hanging Indents?

Jeffby Jeff Hume-Pratuch


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

Dear Chris,

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.


DNA_double_helix_vertikalAPA 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
1, 82-83. doi:10.1037/h0067178

April 18, 2014

Gimme Structure

Daisiesby Stefanie

Abstracts have been addressed on the APA Style blog before (twice, in fact, and very well both times—do give them a read or reread!). The following is a humble contribution to the literature on APA Style abstracts that discusses a particular type: the structured abstract.

The structured abstract is a way of writing and formatting abstracts that is very, well, structured. Gimme structure photo Often used with empirical articles (i.e., those detailing experiments), structured abstracts include headings that run into the text and identify the different elements of the article that are described in the abstract. According to the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health,

These formats were developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to assist health professionals in selecting clinically relevant and methodologically valid journal articles. They also guide authors in summarizing the content of their manuscripts precisely, facilitate the peer-review process for manuscripts submitted for publication, and enhance computerized literature searching. (para. 1)

The headings do count toward your word limit, which is typically somewhere in the range of 150 to 250 words (for APA journals; other publications, databases, or projects may have different limits). However, headings add around four to six words to the total, depending on which headings you use, so the strain should not be great.

Set in bold and italic type, each heading is followed by a colon and the first sentence of that subsection. The headings and their subsequent text immediately follow each other; that is, your abstract is going to be a single paragraph, so please do not hit Enter after each heading’s text. The usual headings for APA journals requiring them (with some variations; see the Instructions to Authors for each journal) are Objective, Method, Results, and Conclusion(s). The Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal author instructions provide an excellent example of abstract instructions with heading options to better fit different types of articles.

When should you use structured abstracts? When someone asks you to or if the headings help you write your abstract. You can always remove the headings on request and still be left with a strong, comprehensive abstract.

Example abstract:

Objective: In this study, we investigated the psychological effects of radical gamma-radiation-caused mutation and transformation to determine whether the transformation affects personality and mood as well as physicality. Method: The single participant filled out the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory—2 and other self-report measures assessing his state of mind, stress (Acute Stress Disorder Scale), and depression (Beck Depression Inventory). The participant was then asked to mediate an argument between 2 confederates, who had been told to not yield on any point of their entirely unreasonable positions. Once the participant had experienced a massive cellular shift triggered by adrenalin (“hulked out”), he (eventually) filled out the various self-report measures again. Results: The participant’s results showed significant differences in both personality and mood. Among other results, the participant maxed out his pretransformation Hypochondriasis scale score, whereas the score bottomed out posttransformation. Scores pre- and posttransformation were similar on the Paranoia scale, whereas Hypomania and Schizophrenia scale scores were low pretransformation and high posttransformation. Stress and depression scores were high at both testing occasions, but we observed that the madder he got, the stronger his scores became. Conclusions: Gamma radiation changes people exposed to it psychologically as well as physically; it also affects mood. More research is needed to replicate these results; participant recruitment is underway.

Photo: Viktors Ignatenko/Hemera/Thinkstock.

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.

April 01, 2014

How to Cite a Smartwatch

Timothy McAdoo

by Timothy McAdoo

Happy April Fools' Day, everyone!Smartwatch

No, sorry, we haven't developed a format for citing a smartwatch. No matter how many we see on your collective wrists in the coming years, we're unlikely to need a new reference format. (Notice how I hedged on that?)
That's because references should point readers to retrievable sources. See the following posts for more detailed explanations from my colleagues:

  • Being (APA) Stylish (a post about what is and is not addressed in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association)

But, because you've clicked on a post about smart watches, I think you might be interested in this post on how to cite Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and other social media sites.

Photo: lucadp/iStock/Thinkstock

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.

March 20, 2014

Rising Citation Trick

Daisiesby Stefanie

Let’s say you are writing a paper, and you have a great point to make that stems from a number of sources, all needing in-text citation. Let’s say one of those sources is head and shoulders above the rest, though, in inspiring your thought and supporting what you have said. You look at the source, and the lead author’s surname begins with Z. Your heart sinks. According to APA Style, citations are listed alphabetically. Is this terrific source doomed to remain at the tail end of a long list of citations, or is there some way you can bump this source to the front of the line?

Good news! Like a magician, you can direct your audience’s attention where you would like it go to. You just need a few extra words (not abracadabra, but close) and voila! The deed is done!

This, like all great magic tricks, is best illustrated by example. Blog magician

Sleight of hand is not for the faint of heart and can, in fact, be counterintuitive: When you think you are seeing something being manipulated in front of you, you may well not be at all (Zarrow, 2001; see also Copperfield, 2008; Jay, 2013; Penn & Teller, 2012; Stone, 2012; Thurston, 1930).

Here, I wanted to make sure Herb Zarrow, inventor of the Zarrow Shuffle, got his due, so I put his source as the first citation. The rest of the citations are included, but they appear after the words see also. Some other words and phrases that could be used, depending on the situation, are for more information; for a review, see; or a specific phrase that fits your particular situation (e.g., for other counterintuitive sleight-of-hand tricks, see). 
Another separating term is cf., but proceed carefully. When cf., the Latin abbreviation for compare, is used, the citations that follow may be assumed to contradict or otherwise differ from the point being made. Think of it as being short for “see, by way of comparison.”

Even physical magic is about appearances: Although we in the audience worry about the assistant in the box, we do not really think that she is going to end up sawed in half (Thurston, 1925; cf. Blaine, 1999, 2000, 2002; Houdini, 1901, 1912a, 1912b).

If you have another turn of phrase that you like to use in these situations, please share it in the comments!

Photo: SurkovDimitri/iStock/Thinkstock. 

March 13, 2014

Reference List or Bibliography: What’s the Difference?

Jeffby Jeff Hume-Pratuch

Did  you know that there’s no such thing as a bibliography in APA Style? It’s a fact! APA Style uses text citations and a reference list, rather than footnotes and a bibliography, to document sources.

A reference list and a bibliography look a lot alike: They’re both composed of entries arranged alphabetically by author, for example, and they include the same basic information. The difference lies not so much in how they look as in what they contain.

QuestionA bibliography usually contains all the works cited in a paper, but it may also include other works that the author consulted, even if they are not mentioned in the text. Some bibliographies contain only the sources that the author feels are most significant or useful to readers.

In APA Style, however, each reference cited in text must appear in the reference list, and each entry in the reference list must be cited in text. If you cite only three sources in your paper, your reference list will be very short—even if you had to read 50 sources to find those three gems! (Hopefully, that hard work will pay off on your next assignment.)

The APA Style Experts are often asked to provide the “official APA-approved format” for annotated bibliographies (i.e., bibliographies that contain the author’s comments on each source). As you may have guessed, there isn’t one; APA Style doesn’t use bibliographies of any sort. In addition, though, the reference list in APA Style contains only the information that is necessary to help the reader uniquely identify and access each source. That’s why there is no format for an annotated bibliography in the Publication Manual.

March 04, 2014

2014 National Grammar Day

  National Grammar Day 2014

Happy National Grammar Day from the APA Style team!
For more, see http://nationalgrammarday.com/ (or #GrammarDay on Twitter)!

February 27, 2014

Being (APA) Stylish

Daisiesby Stefanie

APA Style—is there anything it can’t do?

Let’s get back to that. First, let’s talk about what it is. The first version of the publication manual, titled “Instructions in Regard to Preparation of Manuscript,”* was seven pages long (!) and published in 1929 as an article in Psychological Bulletin. Flash forward to today: We’re up to the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, but the main purpose is still to give people guidance on writing scholarly journal articles. There’s information on everything from font type and size to heading structure, language choices, statistics, tables, figures, and (everyone’s favorite!) citation and reference style, along with much, much more, within those hallowed pages. The manual has come a long way from its early days, but so has scientific inquiry and thought about health and mental health. The ways of talking and writing about these fields have evolved and changed, and the Publication Manual has changed with them. Further, APA Style has been adopted by a number of fields as an anchor for their writing, too. As someone who works with APA Style every day, it’s humbling to observe its reach, and it’s a pleasure to help clarify some of APA Style’s finer points here and by responding to the astute questions that come via styleexpert@apa.org.

Now, APA Style covers a lot of things. It gives plenty of general advice on good writing, especially of the scholarly kind, and is one of the only sources of guidance on bias-free language. It provides specific formatting advice for those writing for scholarly journals. But our guidelines and formatting might not directly apply to, say, your company’s annual report or your class assignment.

Here are a few other things not specifically covered by the Publication Manual or APA Style:

  • Bibliographies
  • Annotated bibliographies
  • Dissertations
  • Tables of contents
  • Books
  • Newsletters
  • Mediation between students and professors on APA Style disagreements

That being said, we encourage you to borrow and adapt APA Style for your purposes. If you want to apply APA Style to your dissertation, terrific! But I’m afraid I won’t have an official answer for you when you call or write to ask how your chapter titles should appear. I wouldn’t treat those as Level 1 headings (rather, I’d format the chapter title as if it were an article title), but you and your dissertation advisor are the better judges of how your dissertation should look. If there is a secret or at least a key to APA Style, it is this: Figure out the best way to most clearly express your thoughts. Be consistent in structure, formatting, and heading style. You can and will create your own style, based on APA Style, that will fit your particular situation.

When in doubt, you will not be amiss in letting the underlying spirit of APA Style—focusing on clarity, accuracy, and kindness in expression—lead the way in your writing, even if we don’t have specific guidelines for your document type.


*That is not a typo: The original title omits the a before Manuscript or an s after it.

February 20, 2014

How to Cite a Psychological Test in APA Style

Timothy McAdoo
by Timothy McAdoo

A reference to a psychological test (also called a measure, scale, survey, quiz, or instrument) follows the usual who-when-what-where format.


Here’s an example of a test you might have retrieved directly from a website:

Purring, A. (2012). Charisma and Tenacity Survey [Measurement instrument].
     Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/tests/measures/instruments/surveys

A test's name is a proper noun, so be sure to capitalize it in the reference.

In other cases, you may actually be citing the database record rather than the test. If you found a record for the test in a database, you can cite it, whether or not the record contains a link to the test itself:

Barks, H., & Howls, I. (2013). Directions of Generosity [Database record].
     Retrieved from The McAdoo Database of Fictional Titles. http://dx.doi.org

how to cite psychological tests in APA Style: http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2014/02/how-to-cite-a-psychological-test-in-apa-style.htmlOr, perhaps you’ve used a test that is not available online. Not to worry, the format varies only in the "where" element. Use the first example above as your template, but replace “Retrieved from http://...” with the location and publisher (e.g., Petland, MD: E & K Press).

Using Acronyms

Although some tests are better known by their acronyms than by their full titles, the acronym is not included in the reference.* Rather, introduce the acronym at the first use in the body of the paper, as shown in the examples below.

In-Text Citations

In the body of your paper, be careful to write the name exactly as it appears in your reference. And here again, capitalize the test name, because it is a proper noun. However, capitalize the word survey (or instrument, quiz, etc.) only if it’s part of the test’s name:

“In this study, we used Purring’s (2012) Charisma and Tenacity Survey (CATS) rather than Barks and Howls’s (2013) Directions of Generosity survey.”

The abbreviation need not be introduced if the test name is mentioned only once. However, if the test name appears frequently in the paper (i.e., generally three or more times), define it the first time, and use the abbreviation consistently thereafter. Note also that the test names are not italicized when used in the text. 

Finally, although you don’t need to include the author and date every time you mention the test by name, do include the author–date citation if you quote directly from the test or paraphrase it in any way.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve passed my test! Give yourself an A+.


*The exception is the rare case where the acronym is the only official name of the test (i.e., an official spelled-out title no longer exists, which is an uncommon occurrence; the most famous example is the SAT, which no longer has a spelled-out name).

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