APA Writing Style | Language & Punctuation Guidelines
The American Psychological Association (APA) published the 7th edition of its style manual in 2019. As well as rules for citation and paper formatting, the manual provides various language guidelines to help you present your ideas in a clear, concise, and inclusive manner.
Key issues include active vs. passive voice, use of pronouns, anthropomorphism, inclusive language, punctuation, abbreviations and acronyms, and numbers.
Active vs. passive voice
The passive voice, which places the focus on the object of an action rather than on who or what is carrying it out (the agent), is often overused in academic writing. It can be long-winded, and it sometimes obscures your meaning if you don’t specify the agent.
- The test was completed. [passive voice, agent unclear]
- The test was completed by the participants. [passive voice, long-winded]
- The participants completed the test. [active voice]
APA therefore recommends using the active voice by default. However, that doesn’t mean you can never use the passive voice. When it’s unimportant who carried out a particular action, the passive voice is a better choice.
- James and I mounted the projector on the wall.
- The projector was mounted on the wall.
Appropriate use of personal pronouns is key to maintaining an academic tone in your writing.
First-person pronouns (I, we) should be used when referring to your own actions and thoughts. Don’t refer to yourself in the third person.
- The researcher(s) administered the test.
- I/we administered the test.
However, avoid the editorial “we,” which involves using “we” to make a generalization about the world or about a group of people.
- We are social creatures.
- Humans are social creatures.
Second-person pronouns (you) should be avoided entirely unless you’re quoting someone else. If you need to make a generalization, use the impersonal pronoun “one” instead, or (usually the better option) rephrase.
- As a teacher, you should be patient with your students.
- As a teacher, one should be patient with one’s students.
- Teachers should be patient with their students.
Use the third-person pronoun “they” to refer to an individual who uses “they” as their chosen pronoun. Also use “they,” not “he or she,” to refer to a generic individual whose gender is unknown or irrelevant in the context.
- When a student agrees to participate, he or she is provided with the necessary materials.
- When a student agrees to participate, they are provided with the necessary materials.
- When students agree to participate, they are provided with the necessary materials.
“Anthropomorphism” means attributing actions to objects that cannot literally take those actions. Avoid doing this where it confuses your meaning, but feel free to do so when your point remains clear.
- The study wondered whether an algorithm could predict student engagement.
- The researcher wondered whether an algorithm could predict student engagement.
- The table presents the algorithm’s predictions and their accuracy.
- The results suggest that software can help schools improve student well-being.
APA also provides guidance on ensuring your language is inclusive and respectful. Some key points are summarized below.
- Replace terms that are unnecessarily gendered or that have sexist connotations with more inclusive alternatives (e.g., change “fireman” to “firefighter”).
- As mentioned above, use “they” to refer to a person who uses “they” as their chosen pronoun and to refer to a generic individual of unknown gender.
- Capitalize “Black” and “White” when used in the racial sense. Don’t use colors to refer to other racial groups. Also capitalize terms like “Native American,” “Hispanic,” “Indigenous,” and “Aboriginal.”
- Don’t hyphenate terms such as “Asian American” or “African American” in any position.
- Generally, avoid using adjectives as nouns to label groups of people. For example, prefer “people living in poverty” over “the poor.” This emphasizes that poverty is a circumstance in people’s lives, not an essential quality of their existence.
- Always use a comma after the Latin abbreviations “e.g.” and “i.e.”
- Similarly, use a comma after an introductory phrase, even if it’s only a single word. For example, “Conversely, the results of …”
- For proper hyphenation of words, follow Merriam-Webster or, for psychological terms, the APA Dictionary of Psychology.
- Hyphenate fractions only when they are used as adjectives (e.g., “two thirds of the participants,” but “a two-thirds majority”).
- Always use the serial (Oxford) comma, which means placing a comma before the “and” preceding the final item in a list of three or more items. For example, “grammar, usage, and style.”
- Use double quotation marks, and place a comma or period following a quote inside the quotation marks.
Abbreviations and acronyms
Proper use of abbreviations and acronyms is important, since they help keep your writing concise but can be confusing if used inconsistently or without proper explanation.
- Define an acronym when you first mention it, and use it consistently after that point. You don’t need to define very well-known acronyms like “TV” and “DNA” or abbreviations for standard units of measurement (e.g., “min” for “minute”).
- Redefine an abbreviation in each figure and table in which it appears. The purpose of defining abbreviations in the table or figure is that if other authors reuse the work in a future paper, then the definitions of the terms will be attached.
- Avoid using an acronym in your paper title, except in cases where the acronym is used more commonly than the full term (e.g., “DNA” or “HIV”). You can use acronyms in headings only if they are similarly common or have been defined in the text before that heading.
- It’s fine to begin a sentence with an acronym or abbreviation. However, never begin a sentence with a lowercase abbreviation or a standalone symbol.
- Use periods in the terms “U.S.” and “U.K.” only when they are used as adjectives, not when they are used as nouns. Do not use periods in abbreviations of state, province, or territory names (e.g., “NY”).
- Use the Latin abbreviations “e.g.,” “i.e.,” and “etc.” only in parentheses or within bullet-point lists. APA considers them too informal for the main text.
Numbers: Words vs. numerals
As a general rule, spell out numbers for zero through nine and use numerals for 10 and above. However, note the following exceptions.
Always use numerals:
- When a number directly precedes a unit of measurement (e.g., 5 cm)
- When referring to statistics, equations, fractions, decimals, percentages, or ratios
- When a number represents time, dates, ages, scores, points on a scale, exact sums of money, or numerals as numerals (but use words for approximations of numbers of days, weeks, months, or years)
- When referring to a specific place in a numbered series
- In the abstract of a paper (this allows you to save space in the character limit)
Always use words:
- For any number that begins a sentence, title or heading (but where possible, rephrase to avoid the issue)
- For common fractions (e.g., “one fifth”)
- For universally accepted usage (e.g., “Twelve Apostles,” “Five Pillars of Islam”)
Use a combination of numerals and words to express back-to-back modifiers (e.g. “2 two-way interactions” or “ten 7-point scales”). In such situations, a combination of numerals and words increases the clarity and readability of the phrase.
Note that when referring to a numbered element of your text, you should use a numeral and capitalize the word preceding it (e.g., “Chapter 2,” “Table 4”).
Hyphenation of prefixes and suffixes
Prefixes and suffixes are added to words to alter their meaning—prefixes to the start of the word, suffixes to the end. For example, by adding the prefix “post-” to the adjective “natal,” you get another adjective, “postnatal.”
It’s often not clear whether such terms should be hyphenated or written as one solid word. APA helpfully provides a list of prefixes and suffixes that don’t require hyphenation according to their guidelines.
|Prefix or suffix||Example|
But do hyphenate:
- The prefix “self-” (e.g., “self-deprecating”)
- The word “quasi-experimental”
- Prefixes that end with “a,” “i,” or “o” when the following word starts with the same letter (e.g., “meta-analysis,” “anti-intellectual”)
- When attaching to a number, abbreviation, or capitalized word (e.g., “pre-1914,” “post-Napoleonic”)
- To avoid ambiguity (e.g., “re-form” to mean “form again” as opposed to the usual meaning of “reform”)
Other style issues
APA’s guidelines are extensive. Read more about other style issues not covered in this article by following the links below:
- APA Style citation
- Paper formatting and layout
- Headings and subheadings
- Tables and figures
- Reporting statistics
- Block quoting
Frequently asked questions about APA language guidelines
- Can I write in the first person in APA Style?
In APA Style, you should not refer to yourself in the third person. For example, do not refer to yourself as “the researcher” or “the author” but simply as “I” or “me.” Referring to yourself in the third person is still common practice in some academic fields, but APA Style rejects this convention.
- Is the passive voice allowed in APA Style?
Yes, it’s perfectly valid to write sentences in the passive voice. The APA language guidelines do caution against overusing the passive voice, because it can obscure your meaning or be needlessly long-winded. For this reason, default to the active voice in most cases.
The passive voice is most useful when the point of the sentence is just to state what was done, not to emphasize who did it. For example, “The projector was mounted on the wall” is better than “James and I mounted the projector on the wall” if it’s not particularly important who mounted the projector.
- Do I need to use the serial (Oxford) comma in APA Style?
This means including a comma before the word “and” at the end of a list of three or more items: “spelling, grammar, and punctuation.” Doing this consistently tends to make your lists less ambiguous.
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