Academic writing requires the use of signal phrases to properly embed quoted material and document information. While basic signal phrases require the use of the author’s name and a strong verb, attribution tags emphasize different types of information related to the source in order to set up the quoted material and can help shape your reader’s response to the information presented. What you have to say is more important than the passage you are citing, so you want the information leading into your evidence/ support to work to your advantage.
A basic signal phrase is a device used to smoothly integrate quotations and paraphrases into your essay and consists of an author’s name and an active verb indicating how the author is presenting the material. It is important for beginning academic writers to use signal phrases to clearly attribute textual evidence to an author and to avoid interrupting the flow of an essay.
Referring to the Author within a Signal Phrase
In most 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). APA style guidelines require no reference to a 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. Any future signal phrase should refer to the author by last name only or with a pronoun when it’s perfectly clear to whom the pronoun refers. For example:
- Michael Pollan observes, “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, which is then followed by one space before the opening quotation mark.
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.
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.
Why Use Signal Phrases and Attributive Tags?
While many students may see attributive tags as filler, they can provide the audience with valuable insight into how you, the writer, intend the quoted material to be read/viewed. In addition to setting up the source evidence, attribution tags can also be used as meaningful transitions moving your readers between your ideas and those of your support.
In most instances, the first time the author is mentioned in an MLA style essay, it is a good idea to provide an attributive tag as well as the author’s first and last name.
While providing the author’s credentials and title of the source are the most common attributions used, there are others we should be aware of:
Types of Attributive Tags (attributive tag is underlined in each example)
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
9.4 Signal Phrases and Attributive Tags by John Lanning and Amanda Lloyd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.