APA Writing Style and Mechanics: A User’s Guide

APA Writing Style and Mechanics: A User’s Guide

Writing in the style prescribed by the American Psychological Association (APA) (2001), Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, can be a daunting experience for both graduate students and faculty members (Polly Proofreader, personal communication, January 4, 1999). Green and Gold (1996) suggest that an additional guide can be helpful, minimizing the need for searching through the sometimes confusing and highly detailed text of APA. In this paper, a review of the information most often used by students is presented.

Format Considerations
The most common errors students make are in the margins, running head, header, and reference page format (Green & Gold, 1996). Additional errors noted by faculty include in-text citations of direct quotes or paraphrased material (Maka Mistake, personal communication, September 20, 2001).

Correct Margins
Margins are required to be one inch equally. That is, if the top and side margins are one inch, the bottom margin must also be one inch on each page of the text. This rule does not apply to the last page of the text, which may end at any point above the one-inch margin. The rule is broken to avoid placing a lone heading on the last line of the page or a single line of text on the top of the next page.

Running Head
The running head appears only on the title page, at the left and top margins. The entire title may be used if it contains 50 or fewer characters, counting spaces between words, not including the words Running head. If the title is longer than 50 characters, an abbreviated version must be used (APA, 2001). An example of a properly placed running head is shown on the title page of this paper.

Page Header
The header contains the first two or three words of the title and appears on the third line from the top edge of each page, above the margin, in the right-hand corner, five spaces to the left of the page number. The automatic function of a word-processing program should be used to print the headers and page numbers consecutively in the paper, with 1 appearing on the title page.

Reference Page
The hanging indentation is used for the reference page; that is, the first line of the reference, usually the author’s name, rests against the left margin, and the following lines are indented 5 or 7 spaces or ½ inch. APA (2001) recommends setting the tab key to ½ inch. The reference page is alphabetized by author and contains the date of publication in parentheses, directly after the author’s name. Next, the title, the place of publication, and the name of the publisher are listed. The proliferation of electronic materials has prompted the APA to create formats designed specifically for Internet and web-based written material. Students should frequently visit the APA website at www.apastyle.org for current formatting of references.

Only those references that have been cited in the paper are listed on the reference page. For purposes of demonstration, however, a variety of references are listed on the reference page of this paper, some of which are not cited in the text.

In-Text Citations
Direct quotations. Direct quotations must mirror exactly the original source, even if errors are contained in the original. To alert the reader that any errors are part of the original material, the word sic, enclosed in brackets and italicized, should follow the erroneous material. The source of information must be cited. The format of direct quotations may vary with the placement of the quoted material in the sentence. The reader is referred to APA (2001) page 121.

Quotations of less than 40 words are enclosed in double quotation marks. “Use single quotation marks within double quotation marks to set off material that in the original source was enclosed in double quotation marks” (APA, 2001, p. 119). Quotations of 40 words or more are set in a block format without quotation marks. The block quote is started on a new line, indented 5 spaces or 1/2 inch. A sample block quote is contained in this paper.

Paraphrased material. Paraphrasing allows the writer to use the ideas of another, to represent another’s argument, and to give proper credit to the original author or authors (Lawton, Cousineau, & Hillard, 2001). Each time an author is paraphrased, the source must be cited in the text. Page or paragraph numbers are not required for paraphrased material, but APA (2001) encourages writers to include them (p. 121).

Plagiarism. Plagiarism constitutes a serious academic concern. According to Lawton, Cousineau, and Hillard (2001), “academic communities demand that writers credit others for their work, and that the source of their material clearly be acknowledged” (para. 6). They further state, “a mark of strong academic writing is the practice of situating one’s claims and findings within a tradition of inquiry into the subject” (para. 4). No distinction is made between intentional and unintentional plagiarism.

Other Format Issues
Although APA (2001) suggests that an abstract of an article precede the text, an abstract is not used in the short (6 to 10 pages) papers submitted by University of Phoenix students. Faculty members may require an abstract in certain courses.

Preferred typefaces in APA style are 12-pt Times New Roman or 12-pt Courier. Writers should avoid using any software settings that reduce spacing between words or letters.

Writing Mechanics
Correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure are essential components of professional writing (Smyth, 1996). Strunk and White (1979) emphasized the importance of being succinct:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all of his sentences short . . . but that every word tell. (p. 23)

“Grammar is a sine qua non of language . . .” (Gordon, 1993, p. xv). Rules of correct grammar seem to be virtually unknown to the present generation of college students (Harvey Harried, personal communication, October 20, 1999). A few of the rules of grammar will be addressed.

Subject and verb agreement
A singular noun requires a singular verb, and a plural noun requires a plural verb (Strunk & White, 1979). Words that intervene between the noun and verb do not change that basic rule.

Noun and pronoun agreement
If a writer uses a subject that is singular, he or she must use pronouns that are singular. In order to avoid having to use he/she and his/her, writers may reword the sentence and use a plural subject, thereby eliminating the problem. For example, the sentence “A student applying for a job must carefully proofread his or her application” can be reworded to read, “Students applying for jobs must carefully proofread their applications.” Use of plurals can help writers reduce sexist bias and avoid stereotypes.

Correct punctuation establishes the rhythm and readability of sentences. In APA style, only one space is used after periods, commas, colons, and semicolons. When a hyphen is used, no space appears before or after the hyphen (APA, 2001, pp. 290-291).
Correct use of commas and semicolons can be problematic for students. Writers are encouraged to proofread their papers to ensure proper use of commas (Purdue University Online Writing Lab, 2001).

Capitalization is used to designate a proper noun or trade name, as well as major words in titles and headings. Instances where capitalization is not used include laws, theories, models, or hypothesis, such as ethical decision-making model; names of conditions or groups in an experiment, such as experimental or control group; or nouns that designate parts of a book, such as chapter 8 (APA, 2001). A common error in capitalization is its use with the name of a specific educational degree versus the general focus of a degree program. An example is Master of Arts degree versus master’s degree in visual arts.

American Psychological Association. (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Gordon, K. E. (1993). The deluxe transitive vampire: The ultimate handbook of grammar for the innocent, the eager, and the doomed. New York: Pantheon Books.
Green, Q., & Gold, R. (1996). Student writers: Faculty headaches. Phoenix, AZ: Peculiar Press.
Jacobson, J. W., Mulick, J. A., & Schwartz, A. A. (1995). A history of facilitated communication: Science, pseudoscience, and antiscience: Science working group on facilitated communication. American Psychologist, 50, 750-765. Retrieved January 25, 1996, from http://www.apa.org/journals/jacobson.html
Lawton. K. A., Cousineau, L., & Hillard, V.E. (2001). Plagiarism: Its nature and consequences. Retrieved September 27, 2001, from Duke University Guide to Library Research web site: http://www.lib.duke.edu/libguide/plagarism.htm
Madigan, R., Johnson, S., & Linton, P. (1995). The language of psychology: APA style as epistemology [Electronic version]. American Psychologist, 50, 428-435.
Purdue University Online Writing Lab. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2001, from http://owl.english.purdue.edu
Smyth, R. T. (1996). Writing in psychology: A student guide (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (1979). The elements of style (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.