How to Use Signal Phrases in an Essay

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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.

1. 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."

2. Look at 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."

3. Utilize Placement

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.

4. Incorporate Style

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 (MLA) or American Psychological Association (APA) style will determine what information you give about the source.

  • APA style requires the last name of your source along with the source's year of publication.
  • MLA cites the author's last name and page number in parentheses.
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