Signal Phrases in Common Citation Styles

By: Jann Harris

All style guides require some sort of signal phrase when integrating ideas and words that belong to other scholars. Let’s take a closer look at signal verbs, which are a significant part of the signal phrase, and their preferred tenses when integrating scholarly research and ideas according to the most used style guides: APA, CMS, CSE, and MLA.

Signal verbs used in CMS, CSE and MLA are all in simple present tense. Let’s look at a few examples:

Simple present tense expresses an action that is happening now or happens continuously.
explain/explains illustrate/illustrates write/writes
  • Professor Smith explains…
  • Owens illustrates…
  • The researchers write…

MLA and CMS styles require simple present tense because they require that you show the ideas and words of scholars and researchers are continuous, ongoing and growing, even though you may have read them in the past.

Like MLA and CMS, CSE argues that published scholarship and research are an ever growing and developing cannon of knowledge, but also for CSE, which is the primary science-focused style guide, using signal verbs in the past tense indicates that the research included in your paper has been accepted into the science community as a whole.

On the other hand, APA requires the same signal verbs but that those verbs be tensed in simple past. Let’s look at the same examples above in simple past tense forms:

Simple past tense describes events that happened in the past.
explained illustrated wrote
  • Professor Smith (2010) explained…
  • Owens (1999) illustrated…
  • The researchers wrote…

The APA style guide adheres to a more precise and prescriptive use of verb tenses than the three guides above; therefore, it requires simple past tense verbs because most writers who use APA are discussing research studies completed or presented in the past. Events happening in the past should be reported in the past according to APA.

As a writer, it’s important to select signal verbs carefully because they reflect your understanding of the sources you are presenting. When choosing signal verbs, think about verb tense as a prescription of style guides. On the other hand, the actual verbs you choose to become a part of your text reflect your credibility as a writer and researcher; they should directly reflect the tone, purpose, and substance of the author and material you have chosen to become part of your work as a scholar.

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