APA Language Guidelines — Writing Style, Punctuation & Inclusive Language

Time to read: 5 Minutes
APA-language-guidelines-Definition

APA language guidelines cover important aspects of academic writing, such as punctuation, the use of abbreviations and acronyms, pronouns, and numbers.
Becoming familiar with these guidelines will raise the standard and readability of your academic work.

APA Language Guidelines – In a Nutshell

This article explains what you need to know about the latest APA language guidelines and how to best use them in your academic work, including:

  • Using active and passive voice.
  • Using personal pronouns.
  • Inclusive language.
  • Punctuation.
  • Abbreviations and acronyms.
  • Numerals.
  • Hyphenated words with suffixes or prefixes.

Definition: APA language guidelines

APA language guidelines are currently in their 7th edition. By following current guidelines, you can make sure your writing is clear, concise, grammatically correct, and inclusive.

APA language guidelines: Active vs. passive voice

Passive voice (which avoids specifying the agent or subject) is more common in academic work than in other forms of writing.

The problem with using passive voice is that it unnecessarily lengthens sentences, sometimes making them convoluted and ambiguous.
APA language guidelines suggest you use active voice whenever possible.

However, APA language guidelines don’t state that you should never use passive voice. You can use it when it’s not important to specify the agent or subject in a sentence.

The paper was submitted

The paper was submitted by the researchers

The researchers submitted the paper

The reviewers received the paper before the deadline

The paper was received before the deadline

APA language guidelines: Personal pronouns

APA language guidelines apply to first, second, and third-person personal pronouns, which replace nouns in a way that keeps writing concise and grammatically correct.

APA language guidelines Example
first-person pronouns You must use first-person pronouns (I and we) when your work refers to your own actions or thoughts, or to those you share with others.

APA language guidelines suggest you avoid the “editorial we” (using the first-person pronoun to refer to large groups), since this creates generalizations that can’t be proved.
The author rejected the initial hypothesis.
Therefore, I rejected the initial hypothesis.
We are visual learners.
Some people are visual learners.
second-person pronouns APA language guidelines recommend you avoid using second-person pronouns (you), as direct speech doesn’t maintain the formal tone of academic writing. The alternative is to reword the sentence, or use “one” instead of “you”.

Only use second-person pronouns when you directly quote someone else’s words.
You must create a lesson plan for each topic.
One must create a lesson plan for each topic.
Instructors must create a lesson plan for each topic.
third-person pronouns According to APA language guidelines on gender neutrality, you must use third-person pronouns (they) instead of “he” or “she” when the person’s gender is unknown, generic, or irrelevant.

Also, use “they” to refer to individuals who describe themselves using this pronoun.
After each participant is briefed, and he or she signs a consent form.
After participants are briefed, they sign a consent form.
After each participant is briefed, they sign a consent form.

APA language guidelines: Anthropomorphism

In academic writing, anthropomorphism occurs when human actions are attributed to objects or beings incapable of performing such actions. APA language guidelines allow for anthropomorphic language if the meaning is unambiguous.1

The research doesn’t know the full implications.

Researchers don’t know the full implications.

The findings suggest a strong correlation.

The table below presents an overview of the findings.

APA language guidelines: Inclusive language

Following APA language guidelines on inclusive language is required in academic writing to ensure your work is bias-free.2 The main guidelines are:

  • Use third-person pronouns where appropriate.
  • Avoid ageism in your writing (e.g. “older people” instead of “the elderly”).
  • When describing ethnicity, use capitalization and don’t hyphenate terms (e.g. “African American”).
  • Avoid gender-exclusive language (e.g. use “spokesperson” instead of “spokesman”).
  • Be mindful when referring to people with disabilities (e.g. “people with mental disorders” instead of “mentally ill people”).
  • Avoid using adjectives to categorize large groups (e.g. “people experiencing homelessness” instead of “the homeless”).

APA language guidelines: Punctuation

APA language guidelines dictate the following punctuation rules to help avoid confusion in your writing:

  • Punctuate standard Latin abbreviations
    (i.e. and e.g.).
  • Use commas after introductory or transitional phrases
    (e.g. “Therefore,”, “For example,”).
  • Serial or Oxford comma must be used before the final word in a list of three or more items
    (e.g. “adjectives, verbs, and pronouns”).
  • Follow the hyphenation guidelines outlined in the APA Dictionary of Psychology or in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
  • Use double quotation marks except when quoting a quote inside a quote.

APA language guidelines: Abbreviations

APA language guidelines cover the correct use of abbreviations and acronyms, which help make writing concise and avoid redundancy.3 General considerations regarding APA language guidelines on abbreviations and acronyms include:

  • Use the full term and the abbreviation the first time you introduce a concept.
    E.g. “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)”.
  • Well-known acronyms and abbreviations don’t need to be written in their full version (e.g. IQ, cm).
  • Don’t use abbreviations or acronyms in headings, unless you’ve already listed the full version.
  • Don’t use abbreviations or acronyms in paper titles, unless they’re well-known.
  • Acronyms and abbreviation can be the first word in a sentence, as long as they’re uppercase.

APA language guidelines: Numerals and words

Numerals are used to refer to numbers from 10 upwards, and:

  • Before a measurement unit.
  • In statistics or mathematical terms.
  • In academic abstracts.
  • To describe times, dates, scores, or ages.
  • To refer to an item in a numbered list.

Words must be used when:

  • Referring to numbers between zero and nine.
  • A number starts a sentence.
  • In well-known fractions.

Numerals and words can be used together when one of them is a modifier. E.g.: 2 one-way ANOVA tests.

APA language guidelines: Hyphenation

A prefix appears before a noun, whereas a suffix is added at the end of a noun. APA language guidelines state you shouldn’t hyphenated some prefixes and suffixes, including:

Prefix/Suffix Examples
-able translatable
-meter kilometer
-like gluelike
Anti- antiseptic
Post- postmodern
Pre- preexisting
4

Always hyphenate:

  • Prefixes “self” and those that start with “a”, “i”, and “o” before a word that starts with the same letter.
  • Prefixes before a number or a capitalized word. E.g. “pre-2020”.
  • Words that change meaning when hyphenated. E.g. the verb “re-form” is not the same as the noun “reform”.

FAQs

Only when it doesn’t create confusion as to who is the subject or agent in a sentence.

Yes, only when quoting a quote inside a quote.

No, always use a serial comma before the last item in a list of three or more items.

No, well-know abbreviations (like TV) don’t need to be written out.

Sources

1 American Psychological Association. “Anthropomorphism.” July, 2022. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/grammar/anthropomorphism

2 American Psychological Association. “Inclusive Language Guidelines.” 2021. https://www.apa.org/about/apa/equity-diversity-inclusion/language-guidelines

3 American Psychological Association. “Definition of abbreviations.” December, 2021. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/abbreviations/definition

4 American Psychological Association. “Hyphenation Principles.” September 2019. https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/spelling-hyphenation/hyphenation