How to Use Signal Phrases in an Essay

Writing an essay that incorporates sources can be a challenging process. Your ability to cite and quote establishes your credibility as the author, adds to your argument's logic and gives readers places to look for more information. Using signal phrases, phrases that smoothly integrate quotations into your paper, can alert readers to an acknowledgment of other authors' ideas. You can use signal phrases by paying attention to verb usage and providing readers with an appropriate amount of information.

Avoid Dropped Quotations

A dropped quotation occurs when you insert a direct quote from a source without context, making the quotation appear as a stand-alone sentence. As a result, the lack of context jars readers, leaving them unaware of who is speaking. Signal phrases transform dropped quotations from moments of confusion to smoothly integrated sources. For example, "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing" by itself doesn't make much sense. The quotation gives proper context, however, when you add the signal phrase, "Harper Lee once said."

Verb Variations

A signal phrase typically incorporates the author's name and a verb, followed by the quotation. One trap many students fall into, though, is repeating the same verb for every quotation. If every signal phrase uses the verb "says," for example, the repetition will create a distraction for the reader rather than smooth prose. The writing center at the University of Loyola New Orleans suggests using a variety of verbs throughout your paper, such as "acknowledges," "denies," "accepts" and "maintains."


Signal phrases can also become repetitive if they appear in the same place in every sentence. You can create variety in sentence structure by placing your signal phrase in the middle or at the end of the quotation. For example, you might divide the Harper Lee quotation as follows: "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read," declares Harper Lee. "One does not love breathing." You can also end the quotation with the signal phrase, placing the focus on the quote.


Correct use of academic style and punctuation are also crucial to good signal phrases. According to the Claude J. Clarke Learning Center at the University of Plattsburgh, quotation marks appear around direct quotes, with a comma inside the closing quotation mark before the signal phrase. In addition, whether your class requires Modern Language Association or American Psychological Association style will determine what information you give about the source. For example, APA style requires the last name of your source along with the source's year of publication, while MLA cites the author's last name and page number in parentheses.