Writing a Report

29 How to Use APA Style

We need to talk about citing sources. You’ve seen citations in action throughout this text and we mentioned it briefly in the previous chapter, including showing you a video of how to complete in-text citations.
This chapter will add more detail and explain the difference between in-text citations and a reference list. Specifically, we will look at how you can use in-text citations and create reference entries using the American Psychological Association Style Guide, better known as APA Style.

Why did we pick APA specifically?

APA style is one of several citation styles that exist for students and professionals engaging in academic conversations. You may have already encountered these styles if you have taken classes in different departments. For example, some departments use the Modern Language Association (MLA) style, whereas others may use the Chicago Manual of Style. Combined with APA style, these are the three most well-known citation styles used in North America.

Do you need to learn all the different styles in the world to be a successful student and professional? Of course not; after all, there are hundreds of citation styles out there. However, you’ll need to be able to figure out how to use these different citation and reference styles on an as-needed basis. In truth, they are not that far different from each other. Also, once you settle into your upper-level courses in post-secondary, you will most likely only be using one style guide throughout.

One important note about all style guides is that they receive updates every couple of years. This means that the rules and expectations will change somewhat with each new edition. For our purposes, we are using the 7th of edition of the APA style guide, which came out in 2020.

Why do style guide publishers do this? It may seem like a hassle to have to relearn the rules every ten years or so,  but there are two main reasons. The first is keep up with the evolution of research. For example, the first edition of the APA style guide came out back in 1953. Back then, researchers didn’t need to worry about citing sources such as YouTube videos or websites or even tweets. Now, in the latest edition, there are rules for how to do that.

The second reason is to keep up with the evolution of the English language. In previous editions, there was no guidance around gender and pronoun usage. Now, there is specific guidance on both of those topics in addition to how to avoid implying gender binaries in your writing.

Why use a style guide at all?

Using APA Style, or any style guide for that matter, is important for establishing your credibility as a professional communicator. Every in-text citation you use will correspond to an entry on the references page at the end of your report. This allows readers to quickly check the back of your report to see where your sources are from. In doing so, you are able to show that you have taken the report seriously by engaging with legitimate, professional sources in the field.

Additionally, style guides ensure that your report is consistent. You may think that having slight differences in how you use in-text citations may seem like a non-issue, but people notice these discrepancies. If they see you are not paying attention to specific details, they may wonder where else you are not paying attention and you will lose credibility.

As a professional communicator, you must ensure you understand these guidelines and can apply them in your own writing. However, we want to be clear about something. APA Style—and all style guides for that matter—have rules about more than just how to cite sources. Specifically, they have rules around formatting papers, such as where page numbers should go, how to create a title page, how to design headers, and other fine details. When producing professional documents, the only parts of APA formatting you’ll use will be in-text citations and reference entries. Only academic documents follow all APA style conventions.

How to use APA

For the remainder of this chapter, we will discuss the mechanics of APA style. There will be two parts:

  1. How to create a references page
  2. How to add in-text citationsin your report

Before we go into each part, please note that the rules we show you will be the basic requirements. Depending on the source, you may need to add more information to your reference entry or adjust how you write the in-text citation. To learn more about all these differences, check out these videos from Humber Libraries and see these examples from the APA. Their website provides a good overview, with examples, of the different ways to write your references and in-text citations.

If you would like some in-person feedback or have questions, please visit your college or university library. If you are a post-secondary student in British Columbia, you can chat online with a librarian through AskAway

References page

Perhaps surprisingly, we are going to start with the end of your paper, the references page. This is because all in-text citations are based on this section of your report.

The references page allows your reader to easily find any work you cite in your paper. This is because all of your sources will be written up as reference entries on the page. These works should only be ones that you used in your paper. This means you must include entries for all the sources that support the ideas, claims, and concepts you are presenting.

Please note a reference page is different from a bibliography (which you may have had to create in high school). While both will include the sources you used to write your paper, a bibliography will also include works you used for background reading, even if they’re not cited in your paper. Put another way, if you use a source for background research, but don’t use the source’s content to write your paper, then it doesn’t go in your references page.

For every reference entry, there is one or more in-text citation in your report. Every in-text citation is linked to a single reference entry.

What’s in a reference entry?

In APA style, a reference entry needs, at minimum, four elements. These elements tell the reader specific information about where you found your source:

  1. The author (who wrote the work?)
  2. The date (how recent is the information you are using?)
  3. The title (what is the name of the original source?)
  4. The retrieval information (where can the reader retrieve this work if they want to use it for their own research?)

Every reference entry you write should have these four elements. However, each type of reference entry (a book, a journal article, an online video, etc.) can have some slight variation on what those four elements look like.

Exercise #1: Identify the Four Elements of a Reference Entry

Take a look at the three reference entry examples below from sources we’ve used in this textbook. Can you find all four elements? How are all three references similar? How are they different?

(1) Book
MacLennan, J. (2009). Effective communication for the technical professions (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

(2) Journal Article

Booth, W. C. (1963). The rhetorical stance. College Composition and Communication14(3), 139-145. https://doi.org/10.2307/355048

(3) YouTube Video

Wordvice Editing Services. (2018, April 1). How to paraphrase in research papers (APA, AMA) [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VACN6X2eF0

You should notice that each source type is a little different from the others. For example, (1) and (2) use an author name, but (3) uses an organization name. The title for sources (1) and (3) are italicized, but not for (2). Instead, the name of the journal is italicized. There are other differences as well, but the point is that you realize that how you format a specific reference entry will depend on the source type.

This is because there are dozens of different source types and one might be formatted slightly differently than another. To be clear, we don’t expect you to know how to format every type of source. What we want you to know is what information to include when you make your own references page and where to go when you have questions.

To make this easier on you, there are automatic reference entry generators you can use, but one point of caution: though these services make writing reference entries easier, they make a lot of mistakes. You need to check to make sure the reference entry is written and formatted correctly.

Fortunately, the two rules for formatting a references page are pretty simple:

  1. Put references in alphabetical order by the author’s last name or organization’s name.
  2. If the reference runs over to multiple lines, make sure to indent each successive line in the reference (called a “hanging indent,” which is basically the reverse of a standard indentation).

In-text citations

An in-text citation is a way that a writer acknowledges the work of others. That means you should “cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work” (American Psychological Association, 2019, p. 253). The information that follows the quote in the previous sentence is an example of an in-text citation.

APA style uses what is known as the author-date citation system for citing references in texts. This means that, at minimum, your citations will have the last name of the author (or authors) and the year the source was published.

If you include a direct quote, such as the sentence above, you will also need to include the page number.

A Very Important Note

Typically, APA Style only requires you to include page numbers if you are using a direct quote in your writing. However, you should include page numbers where possible, even when paraphrasing. Your instructors likely want you to include page numbers
every time you cite a source in your work. That means, whether you use a direct quote, paraphrase, or summary, include the page number. This will allow you more opportunities to practice your in-text citation skills and allows the reader to find the exact location where the original information can be found in the source.

An in-text citation is commonly found in the body of reports. However, they can also be found in tables, appendixes, and figures. They are important because they show the reader where your research information is coming from. If the reader is interested in the source, they can then flip to your references page at the end of your report and learn more about the source.

Here are two versions of what an in-text citation can look like using the same information. The first one is known as a parenthetical citation and the second is a narrative citation:

1. A concept that will directly impact your relationship with someone is your footing, which is the “foundation upon which your credibility rests in a given interaction” (MacLennan, 2009, p. 10).

2. MacLennan (2009) explains that one concept that will directly impact your relationship with someone is your footing, which is the “foundation which your credibility rests in a given interaction” (p. 10).

The first example, a parenthetical citation, is the one that most people are familiar with. The second one, a narrative citation, is probably unfamiliar, but it is not difficult to apply once you know how. Ideally, you should use a combination of both methods in your writing.

Parenthetical citation

First, let’s start with parenthetical citations because they are the ones most students already know. At it’s core, a parenthetical citation needs the surname of the author (or authors) that wrote the original source material you are using and the year the information is published. It will look like this:

(MacLennan, 2009, p. 10)

If the information you are citing goes onto more than one page, the citation will look like this:

(MacLennan, 2009, pp. 10-11)

And that’s it.

Parenthetical citations are almost always placed at the end of the sentence, but they can sometimes occur before a comma, colon, or semicolon, as well, especially when a different source is being cited later in the same sentence. One point that students often mistake is where to position the period in a parenthetical citation. Notice in example (1) in the previous section that the period goes after the citation. It does not go before the closing quotation mark, which is where most students want to put it. Some students will also try to put a period before the quotation mark and after the citation, but this is wrong. You only need one period and it goes after the citation.

One important note is that the content of your citation will change depending on the number of authors and if the there is a group author like an organization. The year will also change slightly if you are citing the same author who published multiple papers in the same year. In the event that no date information is provided, an abbreviation of “no date” (n.d.) is listed. This page from Purdue OWL provides guidelines on how to format these situations.

Narrative citation

A narrative citation uses the same author-date citation system as a parenthetical citation. The difference is that instead of the citation occurring at the end of the text, it occurs in the text itself. The author’s name will be in the text and this is immediately followed by the publication year in parenthesis. The page number will come at the end of the sentence:

Bashar (2009) explains…communication (p. 10).
Jones (1994) advocates…theory (p. 41).
Tanaka (2020) agrees… study (pp. 245-246)

Using signal verbs

You probably noticed that a verb followed the three narrative citation examples above. These are known as signal verbs. They are special verbs that help you tell the reader how someone is expressing their ideas. Signal verbs are typically more active and descriptive than other verbs like “says” or “writes” or “discusses.”
Read the three examples below. What do the different verbs indicate about the author?

(1) Smith (2020) challenges…
(2) Smith (2020) illustrates…
(3) Smith (2020) verifies…

Each verb provides different information about the rhetorical purpose of the author. Your job as a writer is to make sure you capture that purpose accurately.

When choosing a signal verb, ask yourself: what is the author doing in the passage I’m citing? Is the author describing something?  Explaining something? Arguing? Giving examples? Estimating? Recommending? WarningUrging?

Be sure the verb you choose accurately represents the intention of the source text. For example, don’t use “concedes” if the writer isn’t actually conceding a point. Look up any words you don’t know and add ones that you like to use.

Table #3 below shows different signal verbs you can use in your own writing

Table #3: Commonly used signal verbs

Making a claim Recommending Disagreeing or Questioning Showing Expressing Agreement Additional Signal Verbs











call for
























point out





















How do I choose which citation to use?

One point to keep in mind is that you will never mix parenthetical citations and narrative citations in the same sentence. You will only use one.

But how do you know which one to use? There are several reasons why you would use one of the other, but here are the main two:

  1. If you want to highlight the author, use a narrative citation. You might do this because the author is well-known in your field and you want to add some authority to your own argument. Alternatively, if you are arguing against something the author is saying, you may want to mention them directly.
  2. If you want to highlight the information, use a parenthetical citation. You might do this if you are trying make a point about the topic or provide some general information. Also, if you want to focus in on the argument a source is making, and not who made the argument, you would use this form.


American Psychological Association. (2019). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.).


This chapter was adapted from Effective Professional Communication: A Rhetorical Approach by Rebekah Bennetch, Corey Owen, and Zachary Keesey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Bennetch, Owen, and Keesey adapted their chapter from Technical Writing Essentials (on BCcampus) by Suzan Last and Candice Neveu. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.



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