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Paraphrasing in APA

If you’re taking a class in the social sciences, such as psychology, sociology, or political science, you’re probably using APA (American Psychological Association) format. One important use of formatting guidelines is to standardize the way you incorporate and cite sources in your papers.

Sources are incorporated into papers as quotations, summaries, or paraphrases. Paraphrasing is also called “indirect discourse” because instead of directly writing what the source says, you’re putting it in your own words. The source is represented indirectly, but still with proper citation.

Some people have the misconception that if they change the wording of a source, as we do in a paraphrase, they no longer must cite the source. This isn’t true; it’s always important to let readers know when you’re using ideas from a source. This lets readers see the depth of your research.

Let’s look at how to properly incorporate paraphrases using APA format.

Letting the reader know when a paraphrase starts

In a quotation, it is easy for a reader to tell when the quote begins and ends because the quote is enclosed in quotation marks. Paraphrases lack quotation marks, but it’s still important to show the readers when you’re shifting into material from a source. You don’t want readers to be confused about whether they’re reading your idea or an idea from a source.

Narrative citation

It’s important to organize your paraphrase so it’s clear where it begins and ends, so it’s not abruptly dropped in. Narrative citation involves working some amount of the citation information into the sentence that transitions into the paraphrase.  This information is part of the signal phrase that lets the reader know that a source is coming. A narrative citations usually includes the following information:

  • Last Name of the Author
  • Year of Publication
  • Page number (if the source has pages) or Location in source
    • Single page — p. 1
    • Page range — pp. 1-5

The first time you use the source, include the author’s full name. You may also want to include something about his or her credentials so it’s clear to the readers why this person is a relevant authority.

Narrative format:

Last Name of the Author (Year of Publication) other paraphrase text (Page number).

Narrative example:

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy (2014), explained how the traditional agriculture base of the Alabaman economy had to change as a result of several factors, including the migration of African Americans to other areas of the country in the 1940s (p. 24).

After the first mention of an author, you can switch to using just their last name. You can also  use an appropriate pronoun if it would be clear to readers whom the pronoun refers to, such as if there are several paraphrases from the same author in one paragraph.

An appropriate verb is also part of the signal phrase. In the example above, that verb is “explained.” In APA format, these verbs are in simple past tense or past perfect tense.

Letting the reader know when a paraphrase ends

Just like with the beginning of a paraphrase, the end needs to be signaled to the reader in some way.

Parenthetical citation

Parenthetical citations go at the end of a quote or paraphrase. In APA format, the information in a parenthetical citation is the author’s last name, a comma, and the year of publication. If the author’s last name and the date were given at the beginning of the paraphrase, they do not have to be repeated at the end. A page number is optional for a paraphrase, but it is a good idea. Part of the reason for citations is to allow a reader to follow your research. If the source you are paraphrasing is long or complex, a page number would help the reader find the original material. Place a lowercase ‘p’ followed by a period and a space before the page number. If you’re paraphrasing material over more than one page, use two lowercase p’s followed by a period.

Parenthetical format:

Paraphrase text (Last Name of the Author, Year of Publication, Page number).

Narrative example:

Stevenson (2014) explains that proximity allows us to see that people can’t be reduced to their worst actions (pp. 17-18).

Parenthetical example:

Proximity allows us to see that people can’t be reduced to their worst actions (Stevenson, 2014, pp. 17-18).

When there are no page numbers or listed authors

Of course, some sources, such as web pages, do not have page numbers. Sometimes a writer will cite the paragraph number. In this case, write ‘para’ followed by a period, a space and the paragraph number. If the paraphrase is over more than one paragraph, add an ‘s’. If the text is long enough that counting out the paragraphs would be unreasonable, you can include another identifying feature, like the chapter name or number.


Despite fanciful theories rarely based in fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2019) has maintained that the natural environment is the main cause of vessel disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle (para. 3).

The parenthetical citation goes within the sentence, so the period is to the right of the parenthesis.

The information comes from an unpaginated source, so the paragraph number was used instead.

Notice also that in this example there is no person given as the author. Rather, the information is credited to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Likewise, on the website where this information is found, no person is given as the author. The organization is considered the author. On the references page, the name of the organization will be in the author position.

Some organizations have well-known abbreviations. If that is the case, the first time you refer to an organization, use the full name in the citation but include the abbreviation immediately after in square brackets. For all further citations, you can just use the abbreviation. If you’re unsure whether an organization’s abbreviation is well-known, err on the side of clarity for the reader and use the full name.

Connection to the references page

A reader can take the information in an in-text citation and find the source on the references page. The references page provides the full citation. With this, a reader can easily find the text herself if she wants to read further. An in-text citation includes the author’s last name. This is the first piece of information on a references page citation, which makes it easy to match up the in-text citation to the right source.

Published October 29, 2020.

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