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Research Paper Signal Phrases

Signal phrases are short phrases that introduce a quote, paraphrase, or summary; they signal to readers that an outside source is being used.

A signal phrase introducing a quote:

The CEO of Lighthouse Consulting predicts “a year of exciting, challenging endeavors that will expand the company’s horizons and stimulate growth throughout the company.”

A signal phrase introducing a paraphrase:

New York Times columnist Ashley Green reports that the city’s carbon dioxide emission rate of 60 million metrics a year could be cut by 35% if roads were redesigned to accommodate bikers.

A signal phrase introducing a summary:

The nutritionists Young and Robinson propose that an iron-fortified soy sauce is the solution to the anemia problem in the young women of rural China.

Why do we use them?

There are three important reasons to use signal phrases:

  1. To mark boundaries: Signal phrases mark boundaries between your words and the source’s words. By marking the boundaries, you also provide a smooth transition for the reader between your words and the source.

  2. To emphasize the source: Signal phrases call attention to the author or source being used. In some cases, such as a literature review or the use of a well-known author, specific information about the source is important for the reader to know.

  3. To avoid plagiarism: All source material must be cited, and signal phrases are one way to cite a source—however, additional citation formatting may be necessary depending on your citation style.

How can I use them?

Below are some guidelines and tips for using signal phrases.

  • Signal phrases usually include the author’s name but can also include the author’s job title or background (“reporter for Washington Post,” “researcher,” “senator,” “scholar,” and so on) and/or the title of the source.

  • Signal phrases usually come at the beginning of a sentence before the source material, but they can also occur in the middle of a source or at the end.

  • To avoid monotony and repetition, try to vary both the language and placement of your signal phrases.

    According to Maxwell & Hanson, Some scholars have shown... In the words of researchers Smith and Johnson, “...” As legal scholar Terrence Roberts has noted, “....” “...,” attorney Smith claims. Smith and Robert offer a persuasive argument: “....”


    Choose a verb that is appropriate to the way you are using your source. Below is a list of verbs that can be used in signal phrases:

    acknowledges  adds admits affirms agrees answers argues asserts claims comments concedes confirms contends counters counterattacks declares defines denies disputes echoes endorses estimates finds grants illustrates implies insists mentions notes observes predicts proposes reasons recognizes recommends refutes rejects reports responds reveals speculates states suggests surmises warns writes

Adapted from A Writer’s Reference with Writing in the Disciplines 7th ed. by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers

The In-Text Citation

  • Quoted material is followed by a parenthetical, also known as an in-text citation.
  • The parenthetical gives the page number(s) of the quoted material’s source.
  • The parenthetical sometimes gives the author’s last name, depending on the type of signal phrase you have written.

The Signal Phrase

Definition of a Signal Phrase:A phrase that signals your reader that you are about to include a quote.

There are two types of Signal Phrases:

  1. With an accreditation (the author’s name)
  2. Without an accreditation (the author’s name)

Example of a Signal Phrase with an accreditation:

  • Shelley held a bold view: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (794-95).

Example of a Signal Phrase without an accreditation:

  • Other artists hold a bolder view: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (Shelley 794-95)


The two most common and scholarly signal phrases are “Smith suggests that. . .” and “Smith argues that. . .”

The Problem:

The examples above are both fine signal phrases, but a research paper that contains many in-text citations can become rather tedious to read if every quotation is introduced in the same manner, for all writers tend to develop their own particular writing style habits. In other words, writers find words and phrases that become favorites, and develop a tendency to use them frequently. The signal phrase often proves to be an instance where this repetitiveness occurs.

Detecting the problem through proofreading and editing:

After you have a rough draft of your paper check all your signal phrases. If you discover that your favorite signal phrase verb seems to be “suggests,” then edit your paper by varying the verb. Although this is a simple revision tactic it is very effective, and will help to turn a somewhat tedious prose style into an interesting one.

Alternate signal phrase verbs:

Acknowledges, adds, admits, agrees, argues, asserts, believes, claims, comments, compares, confirms, contends, declares, denies, disputes, emphasizes, endorses, grants, illustrates, implies, insists, notes, observes, points out, reasons, refutes, rejects, reports, responds, suggests, thinks, writes.

Here are two easy rules to follow:

  • If your signal phrase includes the author’s name, then only the page number(s) go inside the parenthetical.
  • If your signal phrase does not include the author’s name, then the pages number(s) and the author’s last name go inside the parenthetical.

Punctuation with Quotations

  • Quoted material is usually preceded by a colon if the quotation is formally introduced and by a comma or no punctuation if the quotation is an integral part of the sentence structure.

Example of a formal introduction:

  • Shelley held a bold view: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (794-95).

Example of a quotation that is an integral part of the sentence structure:

  • Shelley thought poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (794-95).

Another example of a quotation that is an integral part of the sentence structure:

  • “Poets,” according to Shelley, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (103-04).

Quoting Indirect Sources:

  • What if you are reading an article about Edmund Burke, written by a writer named Boswell. Perhaps Boswell quotes Samuel Johnson’s remarks about Shakespeare, and you want to quote Johnson. How would you properly compose your parenthetical? Like so:
  • Samuel Johnson admitted that Edmund Burke was an “extraordinary man” (qtd. in Boswell 450).

Making parenthetical and Works Cited page citations work together:

  • At all times, the author named in your parenthetical or signal phrase must correspond to the author named in your Works Cited page citation.
  • For example, if you incorrectly cited Samuel Johnson in the above example, yet you have Boswell listed on your Works Cited page, then your readers will be unable to reference the Johnson quote.

For more about signal phrases, click here

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