Who Did What? Precision and Anthropomorphism in APA Style -->

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Who Did What? Precision and Anthropomorphism in APA Style

Maybe it’s just because I’m a language geek, but sometimes I laugh at sentences, like this one:

Even though they were shaking their fists, the votes passed in both parties.

Am I laughing at the political statement? No. I’m laughing at the image of votes…shaking their fists. Because of the way that this sentence is worded, it sounds as though they were shaking their fists is describing the votes. (I suddenly have this flashback to the Schoolhouse Rock videos that showed a cartoon character of a legislative bill with arms, legs, etc., and I can’t help but giggle.) Because this description is separated from the actual word it describes, nonhuman subjects are given human actions, and the sentence suddenly becomes imprecise and even comical to the critical reader. A nonhuman vote is suddenly able to shake a fist!

Giving human characteristics to nonhuman subjects is often called anthropomorphism. In poetry, this sort of language can be fresh and unique, but in academic writing, it is considered confusing, unclear, or imprecise.  In section 3.09 of the APA manual, the authors express the need for clarity and precision at the sentence level. What’s to keep our academic writing from succumbing to the fate of imprecision? 

Who Did What? Precision and Anthropomorphism in APA Style
Artwork (c) Jonathan Wolstenholme

Consider these sentences that are similar to those I see frequently in student writing:
  • The research reviewed four years of data. [Can research actually review anything, or was it the researcher?]
  • The results determined that the study was valid. [Do results have the ability to determine anything?]
  • Because of his four years of experience, the voice of the researcher could not be ignored. [Did the voice have four years of experience?]
  • The school created a drug-free zone. [Did the school itself create this, or did the school leader or administrators create this?]

Each of these sentences gives human characteristics to nonhuman subjects, making the language imprecise, inaccurate, and at times, potentially confusing for the readers.

Here are some quick tips for precision:
  • Make it clear who is doing what action
  • Ensure that only humans get humanlike characteristics and actions
  • Be direct in your language and sentence structure
  • Ensure that descriptions are always directly next to what it is that they are describing

Take a look at the Writing Center’s page on precision and clarity for more tips and information on how to be as direct, precise, and clear as possible in your writing.

This month on the blog, we're focusing on topics related to APA style. Check out our latest podcast episode, "Make APA Style Work for You: How to Navigate Grey Areas," and stay tuned for another APA-related post next week. As always, we welcome your thoughts and questions below in the comments section!


Rachel Willard is a writing instructor and the coordinator of student messaging at the Walden Writing Center. She loves discovering the social interests of Walden students and hearing the stories that shine through their writing.

Never miss a new post; Opt-out at any time


  1. Thanks for the guidance on Anthropomorphism it is not an easy word to speak. The knowledge and information on this word is that it does not speak in human characteristics in animals or to inanimate sources, the lesson is learned. The correct way to write as sentence is to use pronouns and nouns to make a sentence clear and precise in meaning so that it does not to confuse the reader. Right

    1. Absolutely! Attaching human actions to non-human objects is a writing move many writers make(such as "This paper argues...."), but doing so can be confusing for readers.