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March 04, 2019

What Qualifies as a Table or a Figure in APA Style?

David Becker




By David Becker

A common issue I encounter as a book editor is when an author labels something as a table or a figure that doesn’t qualify as either. Often, it’s just a numbered list or a bulleted list inside a text box, which should be presented in the main body of the paper, as described on pages 63–65 in the Publication Manual, Sixth Edition. Simply surrounding a block of text with four borders is not enough to make it a figure or a table. But, that raises the question: What does qualify as a figure or a table in APA Style?

What are figures and tables

There are some basic structural criteria to consider first. Regarding tables, the Publication Manual states that they are “arranged in an orderly display of columns and rows” (p. 125). Note that columns and rows are pluralized, meaning that more than one of each of these elements are necessary for something to be considered a table. A text box consisting of one row and one column is therefore not a table in APA Style.

Figures generally follow one simple rule: They need to contain some form of nontextual, visual element (bullet points or other basic symbols don’t count). A flow chart, for instance, may contain textual information, but it is organized in a visually distinct manner from normal text, using a series of lines and text boxes or bubbles. As another example, Figure 8.1 on page 232 in the Publication Manual presents a sample cover letter. Although this figure contains only text, the letter follows a different structure and format than the surrounding text, so there is still some basic visual element that makes it a figure.

It’s also important to consider the purpose of figures and tables, which is to present information in a way that cannot adequately be conveyed through a simple textual description. For instance, trying to describe lots of numerical data in narrative format often results in dense prose that can be difficult for readers to interpret. Presenting these data in a table or a figure makes them easier to understand.

On the other hand, if you want to highlight only a few simple pieces of information, presenting them in a graphical format might be overcomplicating matters. Even a small figure or table can take up a lot of space compared to a sentence or two and can unnecessarily interrupt the flow of a paper. If the content is easy to explain in narrative format, or if readers can easily understand it without a visual aid, then presenting it in the text may be preferable to creating a table or a figure (see, for instance, the sample text at the top of p. 127 in the Publication Manual). After all, being concise is important in scholarly writing, and a couple sentences are certainly more concise than a table or a figure.

For further advice, read our posts on constructing tables and figures.

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