Signal Phrases | Definition, Explanation & Examples

A signal phrase attributes a quote or idea to an outside source. Signal phrases are often used alongside in-text citations to help the reader to distinguish between your work and sources that you are quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing.

Example: Signal phrase
According to the folklorist and scholar Vladimir Propp, all fictional characters relate to seven basic character types.

What is the purpose of a signal phrase?

Signal phrases serve a range of purposes, including:

  • Integrating sources smoothly, introducing a quote or idea that is not your own
  • Giving credit to outside scholars or studies and avoiding plagiarism
  • Establishing the credentials of your sources

Signal phrases also allow you to position the source in relation to your own argument. For example, phrases such as “has shown” and “have proven” suggest that you agree, while phrases like “has claimed” or “proposes” are less definitive and may introduce a counterargument.

How to use signal phrases

Once you have found a relevant quote or argument that you want to include in your essay, a signal phrase can help you to introduce it.

Signal phrases can be used at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence. Vary how you use them to create a sense of flow in your writing. Using signal phrases effectively means including:

  • The name of the scholar(s) or study that you want to reference
  • An attributive tag such as “according to” or “has argued”
  • The quote or idea you want to include

You might also include the title of the source or the credentials of the author to establish their authority on the topic.

When using signal phrases, it is important not to misrepresent the author’s argument. Your word choice will determine how accurately you characterize the author’s position.

  • In his groundbreaking work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell concedes that all myths are variations of a single, earlier myth.
  • In his groundbreaking work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argues that all myths are variations of a single, earlier myth.

Signal phrases can also be used to contrast different arguments. This can be done using a transition word such as “although” or “however.”

Example: Signal phrases showing contrasting arguments

Literary critic Harold Bloom criticizes all theories that “connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good” (22). However, feminist and Marxist critics oppose this view and stress the importance of …

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Examples of signal phrases

Signal phrases have many different functions, implying various different perspectives on the information they frame. Your choice of signal phrases can tell the reader something about the stance of the author you’re citing, and sometimes about your own stance.

Signal phrases and their functions
Function Example sentence Signal words and phrases
Propositional: The position is arguable rather than definitive, but the author isn’t necessarily responding to an existing debate. The historian Oswald Spengler (1918) proposed that all cultures are superorganisms with a predictable lifespan. assumes, believes, claims, concludes, declares, emphasizes, proposes, suggests
Demonstrative: A positive or negative statement is made, which can be verified. Galileo Galilei proved that the earth rotates around the sun by examining … proves, has disproven, confirms, displays, reveals, shows
Argumentative: A position is taken for or against something, with the implication that the debate is ongoing. Allen Ginsberg denies the importance of artistic revision … argues, contends, denies, insists, maintains
Supportive: A position is taken in agreement with what came before. Recent research has confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity by observing light from behind a black hole. agrees, confirms, endorses, reinforces, promotes, supports
Conciliatory: The author acknowledges the validity of an idea or argument, but with the implication that their other ideas may be quite different. While Foucault (1980) concedes that individual power can only be exercised in a field of limited possibilities, he goes on to say that … acknowledges, admits, concedes, grants
Neutral: You present the author’s position neutrally, without any special emphasis. According to recent research, food services are responsible for one third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. according to, analyzes, asks, describes, discusses, explains, in the words of, notes, observes, points out, reports, writes

Signal phrases and citation styles

Signal phrases can vary in tense depending on the citation style being used.

Some signal phrases like “according to” and “in the words of” will remain the same regardless of citation style, but signal phrases that contain a verb need to adhere to the chosen style. This means using the correct verb tense with your signal phrases.

  • APA Style requires you to use the past tense or present perfect tense.
  • MLA and Chicago require you to use the present tense.
Example: Incorrect signal phrase in APA Style
As LaJeunesse demonstrates, “the increased social productivity that results from reduced work times can create long-term improvements in the standard of living” (1999, pp. 93–94).
Example: Correct signal phrase in APA Style
As LaJeunesse has demonstrated, “the increased social productivity that results from reduced work times can create long-term improvements in the standard of living” (1999, pp. 93–94).
Example: Incorrect signal phrase in MLA style
T. S. Eliot argued that the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets are of greater significance than the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century.
Example: Correct signal phrase in MLA style
T. S. Eliot argues that the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets are of greater significance than the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century.

Frequently asked questions about signal phrases

What is a signal phrase?

A signal phrase is a group of words that ascribes a quote or idea to an outside source.

Signal phrases distinguish the cited idea or argument from your own writing and introduce important information including the source of the material that you are quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing. For example:

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (1994) insists that humans possess an innate faculty for comprehending grammar.”

How do I use signal phrases?

Signal phrases can be used in various ways and can be placed at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence.

To use signal phrases effectively, include:

  • The name of the scholar(s) or study you’re referencing
  • An attributive tag such as “according to” or “argues that”
  • The quote or idea you want to include

Different citation styles require you to use specific verb tenses when using signal phrases.

  • APA Style requires you to use the past or present perfect tense when using signal phrases.
  • MLA and Chicago requires you to use the present tense when using signal phrases.
Why do I need to use signal phrases?

Signal phrases allow you to give credit for an idea or quote to its author or originator. This helps you to:

  • Establish the credentials of your sources
  • Display your depth of reading and understanding of the field
  • Position your own work in relation to other scholars
  • Avoid plagiarism
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Eoghan Ryan

Eoghan has a lot of experience with theses and dissertations at bachelor's, MA, and PhD level. He has taught university English courses, helping students to improve their research and writing.

1 comment

Eoghan Ryan
Eoghan Ryan (Scribbr Team)
April 25, 2022 at 12:51 PM

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