Defining Signal Phrases with MLA Style

By: Jann Harris

Signal phrases introduce materials from sources such as paraphrases, summaries and direct quotations. We use signal phrases to show ideas aren’t our own and instead belong to another scholar. This blog breaks down how to use signal phrases with MLA.

A signal phrase consists of two parts: Author Tag + Signal Verb = Signal Phrase

Part I: Author Tags

Author tags introduce an author by name. The way you introduce authors is different depending on where and when you are citing them.

  1. The first time you introduce a source into your paper, state the authors’ full names and their credibility.
    • Elizabeth Stone, professor of English at Fordham University,
    • Mary Katherine Ham, an American journalist,

Think of this as similar to how you’d introduce people who do not know each in a formal setting. You’d start by stating their full names and by saying a little bit about them. You might say, “John, this is Sarah Mosher, my composition teacher.”

A note about determining authors’ credibility: Google is your friend! Yes, your scholars are the authors of the texts you read, but they also have other credentials that make them authorities in their fields.

  1. After the first time you introduce an author by his/her full name and credentials, you can then refer to him/her by last name only in subsequent signal phrases.
    • Elizabeth Stone = Stone
    • Mary Katherine Ham = Ham

Remember, it’s never okay to refer to authors by their first names. I think of it like this: I neither know my authors personally nor have I been given permission to address them on a first name basis.

  1. Let’s be honest, discussing the same author over and over and beginning every sentence with the same author’s last name can get repetitive for your reader. You can use a third type of author tag is called a “vague author tag.” Here are a few examples:
    • the author(s)
    • he, she or they

When you use a vague author tag, it’s important to remember to include the author’s last name in the in-text citation.

  • Some scholars warn users to be cautious of broadcasting their lives on social networking sites because there are stalkers on the prowl (Ham 282).

Part II: Signal Verbs:

When you’re integrating a source in your essays, demonstrate your understanding of the source’s ideas by carefully choosing a verb that expresses the author’s main point, idea, purpose, intention, etc.  Signal verbs help let readers know the context in which a scholar’s statement should be viewed.

  • “Salvation has arrived in the form of technology that opens up a whole new world of Remote Parenting,” jokes Amitai Etzioni, Professor at George Washington University (15).
  • Etzioni argues that “quality time” in the traditional sense, meaning “face to face” communication between children and parents, is a thing of the past (15).

Notice the signal verbs used above are in simple present tense. This is a convention of MLA style. Even though the text was written in the past and you read the ideas in the past, all verbs should be in simple present tense.

Most Common Signal Verbs

acknowledges
adds
admits
advises
affirms
agrees
allows
analyzes
answers
argues
asks
asserts
assumes
attacks
believes
calls
charges
claims
comments
compares
concedes
confirms
considers
contends
counters
counterattacks
criticizes
declares
defines
denies
describes
disagrees
discusses
disputes
echoes
emphasizes
endorses
estimates
explains
expresses
finds
grants
holds
illustrates
implies
insinuates
insists
interprets
labels
leaves us with
lists
mentions
notes
objects
observes
offers
opposes
point out
points to
predicts
presents
proposes
reasons
recognizes
recommends
refutes
regards
rejects
remarks
replies
reports
responds
retorts
reveals
says
speculates
states
suggests
supports
surmises
tells
thinks
wants to
warns
wishes
wonders
writes

Choose your signal verbs wisely. For example, you wouldn’t use joke unless you know an author is actually joking. Similarly, you wouldn’t use say or tell unless authors are making statements verbally. Prove means an author has given written evidence to support a claim or argument he/she has made.

A Note about Using Introductory Prepositional Phrases: 

Using introductory prepositional phrases to integrate your sources can also be effective, especially if your source has an unknown author. However, this method tends to be over used and might become repetitive. Below are two examples of source material integrated with introductory prepositional phrases:

  • According to The New York Times article,
  • In the article, “Dropping in and Dropping out,”

Be careful not to over use the phrase according to or in the article in your writing. Instead, use authors’ names and signal verbs that make statements about how you are employing sources to build your ethos as a writer.

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One Response to Defining Signal Phrases with MLA Style

  1. Pingback: Signal Phrases in Common Citation Styles | University of Nevada, Reno – UWC

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