A signal phrase, also known as an attributive tag, is a device used to smoothly integrate quotations and paraphrases into your essay. It is important to use signal phrases to clearly attribute supporting evidence to an author and to avoid interrupting the flow of an essay. Signal phrases can also be used as meaningful transitions, moving your readers between your ideas and those of your sources.
A basic signal phrase consists of an author’s name and an active verb indicating how the author is presenting the material. A signal phrase may also include information explaining an author’s credentials and/or affiliations as well as the title and/or publisher of the source text.
Referring to the Author within a Signal Phrase
In many instances, a signal phrase should contain only the last name of the author or authors of the source text (as opposed to the author’s first and last name). For instance, APA style guidelines require no reference to an author’s first name at any point in an essay and few if any gender specific pronouns. But in MLA papers, if you are referring to an author for the first time in your essay, you should include that author’s first name (you might also want to include the author’s credentials and the title of the source—see “Types of Signal Phrases” below). Any future signal phrase should refer to the author by last name only or with a pronoun when it’s perfectly clear to whom that pronoun refers. For example:
- Michael Pollan observes that “Americans today are having a national conversation about food and agriculture that would have been impossible to imagine even a few short years ago” (29).
- Pollan continues, “But the national conversation unfolding around the subject of food and farming really began in the 1970s” (29).
- He then specifies, “I would argue that the conversation got under way in earnest in 1971, when [Wendell] Berry published an article in The Last Whole Earth Catalogue” (29).
Notice how each signal phrase verb is followed by a comma (or the word “that”), which is then followed by one space before the opening quotation mark.
In essays written according to MLA and APA guidelines, it is acceptable to refer to the author as “the author” as long as it is perfectly clear to whom you are referring. In APA, it is common to see general references to “researchers.”
Signal Phrase Verb Tense
In the examples above, notice how the signal phrase verbs are written in present tense. When you are asked to write a paper that follows MLA guidelines, signal phrases should always be written in present (not past) tense. When writing a paper using APA style, signal phrase verbs should be written in past tense. For example:
- Pollan (2009) observed that “Americans today are having a national conversation about food and agriculture that would have been impossible to imagine even a few short years ago” (p. 29).
Notice how APA in-text citations also differ from MLA style in that APA citations include the year of publication and the page number is preceded by a “p.”
Varying Your Verbs
You should also vary your signal phrase verbs (rather than simply using “states” throughout your entire essay) in order to maintain your readers’ interest and to indicate the author’s intended use of the excerpted material. See below for examples of strong signal phrase verbs.
Types of Signal Phrases
In most instances, the first time the author is mentioned in an MLA-style essay, as well as including the author’s first and last name in a signal phrase, it is also a good idea to include the author’s credentials and the title of the source.
While providing the author’s credentials and title of the source are the most common types of signal phrases, there are others we should be aware of. In the examples below, the information relevant to the type of signal phrase is underlined.
Type: Author’s credentials are indicated.
Example: Grace Chapmen, Curator of Human Health & Evolutionary Medicine at the Springfield Natural History Museum, explains…
Purpose: Presenting an author’s credentials should help build credibility for the passage you are about to present. Including the author’s credentials gives your readers a reason to consider your sources.
Type: Author’s lack of credentials is indicated.
Example: Matthew Spencer, whose background is in marriage counseling, not foreign policy, claims…
Purpose: Identifying an author’s lack of credentials in a given area can help illustrate a lack of authority on the subject matter and persuade the audience not to adopt the author’s ideas. Pointing to an author’s lack of credentials can be beneficial when developing your response to counter-arguments.
Type: Author’s social or political stance, if necessary to the content, is explained.
Example: Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Roland Hayes, prominent civil rights activist, preaches…
Ralph Spencer, who has ties to the White Nationalist movement, denies…
Purpose: Explaining the author’s social or political stance can help a reader to understand why that author expresses a particular view. This understanding can positively or negatively influence an audience. Be careful to avoid engaging in logical fallacies such as loaded language.
Type: Publisher of the source is identified.
Example: According to a recent CNN poll…
Purpose: Identifying the publisher of the passage can help reinforce the credibility of the information presented and you can capitalize on the reputation/ credibility of the publisher of the source material.
Type: Title of the Source is included.
Example: In “Understanding Human Behavior,” Riley argues …
Purpose: Informs the reader where the cited passage is being pulled from.
Type: Information that establishes context is presented.
Example: In a speech presented during a Free Speech rally, Elaine Wallace encourages …
Purpose: Presenting the context that the original information was presented can help the audience understand the author’s purpose more clearly.
MLA Signal Phrase Verbs
APA Signal Phrase Verbs