In case you’re wondering what a signal phrase is, let me start there. All a signal phrase is is some introductory text that precedes (and sometimes splits or follows) information that comes from a source whether that information is a direct quote, a paraphrase, or a summary. A signal phrase is a natural part of an APA Style narrative in-text citation as it attributes information to a particular source like this: Clements (date of publication in parentheses) explained signal phrases in a recent fabulous podcast. Common signal phrases include such phrasing as According to X, As noted by X, As X argued, stated, reported, or some other past tense verb, and other similar constructs.
APA is not the only documentation style that uses signal phrases. MLA uses signal phrases as well, and the key difference between the way signal phrases are used is that MLA uses present tense verbs and APA Style uses past tense verbs.
A signal phrase in MLA: Jones argues that . . .
A signal phrase in APA: Jones argued that . . .
You may be wondering, What’s the benefit of using a signal phrase? Well, for starters, signal phrases help writers distinguish their ideas from a source’s ideas.
Listen to the following example:
Recent studies have shown that car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States. “Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers, who have a crash rate four times higher than that of older drivers” (Zernike, 2012, p. 76). Although some 16 year olds may appear more mature than some 18 year olds, records show that 16 year olds are more likely to get involved in car accidents.
Could you tell what content in that section was mine and what content came from a source? Absolutely not, right? Now obviously if you could actually see the page and a direct quote was used, then you would be able to tell what material was quoted, but even then, it’s a good idea to give a quote authority by using a signal phrase to name the author prior to the direct quote.
Listen to this updated version of the content I just read:
Recent studies have shown that car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States. According to Zernike (2019), “Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers, who have a crash rate four times higher than that of older drivers” (p. 76). While Zernike’s contention should be concerning, what should also be clear is that some 16 year olds may be more mature than some 18 year olds.
Note how in this revised passage, the author, Zernike, is named before the quote so readers know the source right out of the gate, and then the quote is integrated. In APA when using a signal phrase, put the date of publication in parenthesis directly after the author’s last name. Did you notice anything else about the short passage I just read? You probably noticed this sentence: “While Zernike’s contention should be concerning, what should also be clear is that some 16 year olds may be more mature than some 18 year olds.” Why use the author’s name again as I have done? Using the author’s name again and attributing an idea to that source shows my view of the issue relative to Zernike’s view, and in this way makes it clear to readers what ideas are mine and what ideas are Zernike’s. Attributing information to a specific source is another way writers make sure their ideas stand out on the page. Indeed, signal phrases and other forms of attribution function as signposts to readers so that it’s clear whose ideas belong to whom.
While it’s important to use a signal phrase, repeating the same language and placing it prior to the source material will make your writing predictable and perhaps even boring to readers. To this end, you will want to vary how you use signal phrases. The signal phrase is most commonly used prior to the direct quote, paraphrase, or summary, but it can also be used after the information used or it can even split up content from a source. And of course you should mix up the wording you use in the signal phrases. In other words, you wouldn’t want to use “According to” in every instance you use a signal phrase. Vary the phrasing as much as possible.
Another good reason for using a signal phrase when integrating a direct quote is so that you avoid using stand-alone quotes–that is, a quote that starts and ends a sentence. There is no transition into or out of the quote. The quote just appears. I call this kind of quote an island quote, but it’s also known as a dropped quote because it’s dropped into a paragraph without any transitions or real context. Stand-alone quotes should be avoided and using signal phrases will help in this regard.
One suggestion for integrating source material is to be sure to include one or more sentences that establish your thoughts on a subject prior to using the material. You as the writer set the context before even beginning to use content from a source.
Listen to the following excerpt and take note of how the first sentence clearly expresses a personal view as well as a reaction to previously used content, and then a new sentence starts with a signal phrase, followed by the source material.
While Zernike’s contention should be concerning, others argue that some 16 year olds may appear more mature than some 18 year olds, but records show that 16 year olds are still more likely to get involved in car accidents. Preusser and Leaf (2018) argued that the “problem is related to both age and experience. Young drivers lack the fully developed judgmental and decision-making skills of older people at a time when they are just beginning to acquire their driving experience” (2000, p. 36). Preusser and Leaf’s argument is logical–how can new drivers be expected to make split-second decisions when they are still learning to drive? The prudent course of action, then, is to set eighteen as the minimum age in which a driver can be issued a license.
When writing an academic essay, the writer expresses their view–in some way, shape, or form–on a topic, so it’s important for the writer’s voice to be loud and clear in the discussion. To this end, when material from research is integrated into a composition, writers need to make sure they interpret and comment on that content as a way of developing their thoughts on the topic and advancing what the essay as a whole is trying to say. When writers interact with material from sources in this way, their voice is a clear part of the conversation.
Did you notice in the previous excerpt how the writer included such commentary on the evidence presented? Listen to part of the excerpt again:
Preusser and Leaf (2000) argued that the “problem is related to both age and experience. Young drivers lack the fully developed judgmental and decision-making skills of older people at a time when they are just beginning to acquire their driving experience” (2000, p. 36). [Here comes the part to pay attention to]: Preusser and Leaf’s argument is logical–how can new drivers be expected to make split-second decisions when they are still learning to drive? The prudent course of action, then, is to set eighteen as the minimum age in which a driver can be issued a license.
The excerpt begins with a signal phrase that clearly lets readers know the source of the content, and after the material is used, the writer offers commentary on that content as a way for the writer to make his case. The commentary directly follows the content and in this case begins with “Preusser and Leaf’s argument is logical.”
It’s important to offer commentary on evidence presented or the writer risks an essay that is simply presenting information and has no other purpose–or at least no clear purpose. Even if the purpose of the essay is to inform, commentary connects the content to the point of the paragraph as well as to the larger point of the essay.
Until next week–