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Navigating Gray Areas in APA Style By Making Strategic Choices

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APA style is complex; it’s like learning a new language. And despite the fact that we would like for APA to be either right or wrong, like language, that is not the case; there are a lot of gray areas. Additionally, APA evolves based on many different factors, which leads to shifting gray areas. APA gray areas are a common source of frustration for everyone who works with it on a regular basis. As one of those people, I get it!

Navigating Gray Areas in APA Style by Making Strategic Choices

For me, tackling gray areas in APA is all about strategic choice, which can include thinking about your writing as a reader, emailing the Writing Center for clarity, or reaching out to your faculty members for guidance. Here are a few gray areas in APA I’d like to highlight.

Citing Page Numbers for Paraphrased Information
This is a gray APA rule that continues to trip me up. I always find myself going back to the APA Manual to reread what the American Psychological Association has to say about when writers should include page numbers when citing paraphrased information from a source. Page 171, section 6.04, of the APA Manual states, “When paraphrasing or referring to an idea contained in another work, you are encouraged to provide a page or paragraph number, especially when it would help an interested reader locate the relevant passage in a long or complex text”. Like me, you might have some lingering questions after reading this “rule.” First of all, what does “encouraged” mean in the context of this sentence? Secondly, how do I know for sure when a reader might desire a page or paragraph number in my citation for a paraphrase? And lastly, what defines a “long or complex text”? Ten pages? One hundred pages?

After all of this questioning, the gray remains, which means, as writers, it is our job to make some strategic choices. In situations like this one, you have the opportunity to wear the shoes of your readers and think strategically about what you would want, as an “interested reader.” The next time you include a paraphrase in your writing, ask yourself: if I were reading my paper, would I want to be able to look up the information I present in this paraphrase directly from the source from where I retrieved it? If your answer is yes, then add the page number. It’s easier to delete a page number for a paraphrase than add it in later! 

Using “Retrieved on” in Web Page Reference List Entries
This is a classic gray area in APA for now (this “rule,” like many “rules” regarding electronic sources, could change over time). In fact, you can learn about this gray area in APA and others in WriteCastEpisode 22: Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Gray Areas. The question is for this gray APA “rule” is: When do I include the date I retrieved an online source in the reference list entry for that source? According to page 192, section 6.32, of the APA Manual, writers should “…not include retrieval dates unless the source material may change over time (e.g., Wikis).” Again, I have some follow-up questions: What defines “change” in this scenario? What does “over time” really mean? Does the source material have to change every day? Every month? Every year? How could I even know how often a source changes?

When you need to make a strategic choice concerning this APA “rule,” I encourage you to think again about what information you might want in your reference list entry for an online source, as a reader. If you know for a fact that the source might change between the time you write a paper and the time you submit or publish that paper, that’s a good reason to include the retrieval date in the reference list entry for that source.

DOI Number Format
As of March 2017, there are three DOI formats that are APA-compliant. This new development might be fun for those who like to opportunity to choose a preferential DOI format. For others, this gray area can be frustrating. Additionally, this DOI “rule” is not in the APA Manual; it was created after the publication of the Manual due to the evolution of online publication data. In an APA Style Blog Post, Timothy McAdoo outlines the following three DOI formats as acceptable per APA rules:


McAdoo does mention that writers should choose one DOI format and stick with it for the sake of consistency, however. So when formatting your reference list, make sure all of the DOI numbers for the online journal articles you include display the same DOI format. I have fewer questions about this gray area in APA, but when it comes to areas in APA that are open to different choices and preferences, like this one, I encourage students to communicate with faculty and the Writing Center. Different programs may require students to adhere to specific APA preferences, which is sometimes based on the types of sources students will commonly incorporate into their writing.

 If you’d like some help finding the answer to your APA question, email us at writingsupport@waldenu.edu. We at the Writing Center are here to support you through the gray areas in your APA journey. 

Ellen Zamarripa author photo

Ellen Zamarripa is a Writing Instructor and the Coordinator of Residency Planning for Walden University's Writing Center. She loves to teach and especially enjoys working with students asynchronously through paper reviews and then meeting them synchronously at residencies.

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Updates are Coming To Our Paper Review Scheduling Software

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Exciting changes are coming to myPASS this year! myPASS is the scheduling system that the Writing Center uses to manage our online, asynchronous, one-on-one paper review appointments, which help Walden University students develop their writing skills and confidence over time. Sometime this spring or summer, myPASS will automatically upgrade to a new, more responsive version. We want to highlight two changes that will impact—and improve—your paper review experience, as well as to preview what you can expect.

Paper Reviews at the Walden University Writing Center

What is changing?
We are pleased to share that attaching files to your appointment will be easier! After the upgrade, you will attach your file(s) at the bottom of your appointment form. You can still attach your file at the same time as reserving an appointment, or you can make an appointment and attach your file at a later time (for example, if you want to reserve a future appointment while you are still working on your draft, or if you have already attached your draft but have an updated version to submit). There will no longer be a file attachment pop-up window or a yellow folder icon to use for attaching files later. Instead, there will be a single way to attach a file.

Another new feature is an improved mobile interface, so you will be able to make and access paper review appointments on a phone or tablet. This feature will make it easier to reserve and manage your appointments on the go, especially when paired with text message notifications about appointment openings.

What is not changing?
Don’t worry, you won’t need to learn an entirely new system! While myPASS will look slightly different after the upgrade, the features and functionality will largely be the same. We’re also keeping our policies, procedures, and approaches the same, including:

  • the asynchronous nature of our appointments, which allows students flexibility in appointment scheduling and receiving feedback;
  • the ability for students to make up to two appointments per week, with instructors of their choice; and
  • the deadlines for attaching a paper (5 a.m. EST the date of the appointment, or at the same time as reserving an appointment for the current day).

Where can I learn more?
We will e-mail students who are registered in myPASS once the upgrade has taken place. You can also find updates on the myPASS log-in page and in the announcements at the top of the schedules. If you have any questions, reach out to us at writingsupport@waldenu.edu.

If you are new to the paper review service or have taken a break from myPASS, it’s a great time to set a writing goal for yourself, visit our paper review web pages, and make an appointment (or several!) with one of our professional writing instructors. Whether you have been out of school for years or are one of our paper review “regulars,” whether you are anxious or confident about your writing, our team looks forward to working with you!

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The Walden University Writing Center
is proud to support Walden students at all phases of their programs of study. Students working on undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral coursework are invited to use our Paper Review services. Capstone writers are eligible for Paper Reviews up until their prospectus is approved. After which, doctoral-level students are encouraged to use the Writing Center's vast library of resources specially tailored for advanced capstone writers. We're excited to support your Walden journey! 

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Personal Communications in APA Style: When a Correspondence Becomes a Source

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One source of information for evidence-based scholarly writing that gets somewhat overlooked is the personal communication. Though journal articles, academic books, and credible web pages are the most frequent sources used in academic writing, asking an authority in your field about a topic can certainly produce credible and useful evidence. Like other sources, though, APA requires that you document personal communications in a specific way. Identifying, citing, and referencing these sources correctly, while recognizing their limitations, gives authors a new well of information an evidence to help them support their ideas.

Personal communication in APA style: When a correspondence becomes a source

Identifying Personal Communications
Before you can work with personal communications, you first need to identify what sources fall under that category. According to section 6.20 of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, personal communications include “private letters, memos, some electronic communications, personal interviews, telephone conversations, and the like” (p. 179). Obviously, there is a bit of ambiguity here. One defining factor of personal communications is that they “do not provide recoverable data” (p. 179). There is not published document that is associated with these sources. This is one stark difference that separates personal communications from other sources.

Personal Communications and Reference Lists
Another distinguishing feature that is specific to personal communications is that they are not included in a reference list (Section 6.20). I know, this feels really weird. But, because there isn’t any published record of this source, there’s essentially nowhere to direct the reader for access to these sources. This too sounds weird. I assure you, though, these are acceptable sources.

Citing Personal Communications
Lastly, when you cite  personal communications, you include three pieces of information: the author’s name (including the author’s first initial), the words “personal communication,” and the exact date of communication (Section 6.20). This citation looks different than other citations that you may be more comfortable with. In a typical citation, you should include the last name of the author and the year of publication. In a personal communication, you show the reader in the very citation that this is a personal communication.

Personal Communication Citation Examples:

Narrative citation: M. Dusek (personal communication, August 30, 2018) argued that …

Parenthetical citation: (M. Dusek, personal communication, August 30, 2018).

Limitations of Personal Communications
Personal communications do have their limitations. As with all sources, you don’t want to lean to heavily on one particular source or type of sources to support your point. You want to include a strong variety of sources. This shows the reader that you’ve consulted a variety of perspectives on your topic. Similarly, because there isn’t a published, accessible record of personal communications, they should be used sparingly. This means that they aren’t verifiable by the reader, so these shouldn’t be the backbone of any argument that you are making. Lastly, the credibility of a personal communication is only as good as the person who is saying something. If the person you have corresponded with is of questionable credibility, your authority will similarly be questioned by the reader. To combat this, you can offer something of the person’s credentials as you introduce them to the reader.

For example: “M. Dusek (personal communication, August 30, 2018), Writing Instructor at Walden University, argued…”

Admittedly, personal communications aren’t the most common source used in academic writing. Still, for those of you participating in a long and detailed research process, this may be something that can be useful to you. As with all sources, citing these correctly can build your authority with the reader. It is also important to recognize that these sources have limitations and are meant to be used sparingly. Still, if you are wanting to use personal communications in your work, it is acceptable to do so.

Michael Dusek author pic

Michael Dusek is a writing instructor in the Walden University Writing Center. He enjoys working with students and improving their writing skills. The idea that an essay is expressive as well as formal is a cornerstone of the way he views writing. He believes that approaching a writing project as a creative problem-solving activity can alleviate apprehension that students often encounter. In his personal life, he enjoys the outdoors, books, music, and all other types of art. 

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Thursday Thoughts: Finding Community as an Online Student

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Working on a degree in an online environment can be amazing in terms of the flexibility it provides you. As a professional and a student, you have to have control over your schedule and ensure all the moving parts of career, family, and education fit together in a way that works for you. As you go through your course work during a noon lunch break, a classmate may have already been up at 5am to work on her post for the week, while another won’t get started until 10:00pm that night. Scattered across the globe, you are all able to progress in your degree program. The downside, however, is isolation.

Without regular real-time interactions with classmates, online students can sometimes feel isolated or alone. A strong sense of community and support system are important for one’s mental health, and they also help you maintain motivation throughout your program.

Thursday Thoughts

The good news is that Walden University, our writing center, and fellow students have all found ways to create community among students who don't have the opportunity to get together each week in a physical classroom.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Capitalize on social media. Much like a group of students meeting at a coffee shop or library to work on assignments together, or to talk through last week’s class, Walden students have created their own spaces online to have these discussions in Facebook groups. While we are not members of the groups ourselves, and are therefore unable to endorse any specific groups, if you do a search in Facebook for “Walden University” and limit the search to groups, many will appear. There are groups dedicated to specific programs, like the DNP, and there are groups open to all doctoral or master’s students.
  • Twitter is another social media forum where students engage with each other. For a larger academic community and discussion, check out the conversation related to these hashtags: #acwri, #acwrimo (most active during November), #phdchat, #phdforum, #dissertationlife, #GetYourManuscriptOut

Walden University Writing Center

The Walden University Writing Center supports student writers through all phases of the writing process in order to help the writer - not just the writing. We offer this support through our paper review service, blog, podcast, website, and social media presence. 

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"That's Not Inflammable!" and other Double-Negative Adventures

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When I was little I tried to use the explanation of double negatives to win arguments.

Older kid: “There’s not no such thing as Santa!”
Me: “You said ‘not no’! So you’re saying there is such a thing as Santa!”

This approach did not work. It was probably good foreshadowing for my future career interests, though.

That's not Inflammable!" and other double-negative adventures

Grammatically speaking, a double negative is when a writer or speaker uses two negations in a single sentence. And a negation is a word or addition to a word that reverses its meaning. Examples of negations include: no, not, nothing, nowhere, never, the prefixes un- (as in, uncovered or unintentional) and in- (as in inexcusable and indirect), and the suffix -less (as in useless and motionless). (Though just because the English language is weird, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing.) 

While it’s sometimes easy to understand the intended meaning of a double negative (like in the case of the kid who argued against Santa’s existence) it’s important to avoid double negatives as they can occasionally be confused with litotes.

Litotes is a fancy word for a figure of speech that uses understatement for emphasis. For example, someone might say “I don’t have no time.” If they are using a double negative, this would mean that they do not have availability in their schedule. In the case of litotes, however, they might be emphasizing the fact that they do have a little time. They could be clarifying that they’re not completely unavailable. Someone who says, “I can’t go nowhere” could either mean they are unable to leave their current location or that they absolutely must leave that location (“I can’t go nowhere!”) Like many other grammar rules, the difference between litotes and double negatives is usually obvious when said aloud, and is clarified by the speaker’s tone. Let's look at a few examples to illustrate my point.

In the 2016 Ghostbusters movie, Kristin Wiig’s character finds herself without her proton energy pack or identifying jumpsuit just as the supernatural apocalypse begins. She rushes to the street to flag down a cab and frantically tells the driver (Dan Aykroyd in a fan-appreciated cameo) where she needs to go. Aykroyd shrugs and tells her, “Eh, that’s a little bit further uptown than I like to go.” When Wiig protests that there are “real ghosts” invading New York, Aykroyd flippantly responds, “I don’t drive wackos, I don’t go to Chinatown, and I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” before driving off. Audiences watching this scene are not likely to confuse Aykroyd's meaning – he doesn’t want to drive Wiig to Chinatown, and he isn’t afraid of the ghosts she points out.

Alternatively, inflection is harder to convey in academic writing. A writer trying to clarify responsibility for patient care, for example, might want to emphasize the patient’s own agency while not diminishing the importance of responsible professional care. Their paper might read, “The patient’s care should not never be considered part of the patient’s own day-to-day priorities.” 

Here the writer would want the reader to read this as litotes. But a reader might mistakenly believe the writer is not following conventional grammar rules, and actually believes that the patient’s day-to-day priorities should never include their own care.

To ensure clarity, the writer could revise this to “Although a patient’s care is always an important part of a health professional’s responsibilities, the patient themselves should also prioritize their own care.” 

In U.S. academic writing, the onus is on the writer to make sure the reader understands exactly what each sentence means. Since we currently don’t have a way to establish tone and inflection in writing, it’s best to avoid double negatives, even now that you’ve got such an excellent understanding of how they work.

And while this post probably won’t help you win any debates through grammatical explanation, you can impress your friends with your knowledge of “litotes” at your next party. Or you can blow their minds with the whole flammable/inflammable thing.

Kacy Walz Author picture - Walden University Writing Center Instructor

Kacy Walz is a Minnesota native currently living in St. Louis, MO. She has been a Writing Instructor at Walden since 2016 and spends most of her free time trying to complete her PhD, seeking out adventure, and playing with her puppy dog.

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