Wednesday, 21 December 2016

How to cite Wikipedia in APA style

You can cite Wikipedia in APA style just like any other web page for which there is no author. For an article with no author, use the title of the article as the reference. In your reference section, give the full details of the citation beginning with the title. (The word used in the in-text reference must match the first word of the reference, which is in alphabetical order, so the reader can easily find the reference if desired).

Often teachers don't want you to use Wikipedia because it is publicly edited. That means right now I could go on it and add Bozo the Clown to the list of Presidents of the United States. But, Wikipedia has tools to deal with such malicious changes. First, authorized editors are notified automatically about changes, so they will quickly remove any deliberate damage. Second, they will ban me from further editing. So things are quickly returned to normal. Chances are that any citation from Wikipedia is correct.

However, for a research essay, you should be using peer-reviewed journal articles. This means that the information has been written and reviewed by experts in the field. Wikipedia is not a peer-reviewed source. So you probably shouldn't use it for a university-level paper. The point of a research paper is to do research. That means trying to find the original source of the information. Wikipedia is, at best, a secondary source. But it has its uses.

I often use Wikipedia to review the basic facts for some essay I am editing. When someone writes about the politics of Argentina and their grammar is so full of errors that I have difficulty understanding what they are saying, or even that there are two possible meanings, I might consult Wikipedia to get a basic understanding of the situation. In addition, Wikipedia can be useful for general definitions, just like you would use an encyclopedia or dictionary.

The APA style blog also warns against using Wikipedia. However, if you do use Wikipedia, they have a format. A recent client was writing about disaster planning and needed a basic definition of "social issues" to help her discuss the definition of "disaster." For the in-text citation, she put the title of the article and the date ("Social issue," n.d.). The title of the article is in quotation marks, and there is no specific date cited for the article. Notice that she uses the title of the article for both the in-text citation and for the reference list. This is because these two must be identical in all citations so the reader can easily find the reference in the reference list if they want to follow up on the citation.

Finally, here is her reference list citation:

Social issue. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved (insert date here), from

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Don't put a quote in your essay!

Many of the essays that I edit use quotations from sources. That's fine. But don't call it a quote. It's a statement if you need to name it at all. (Usually, you don't.)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides three definitions for quote. All are verbs. To quote is an action. You are actively encouraged to quote, but don't call it a quote. It's a quotation.

But wait! There's more

I'm not writing this to be pedantic about the difference between a noun (quotation) and a verb (quote.) The point is that you don't need to name your citation as a quotation.

A quotation is what you call the words of another that you put in your essay and surround with quotation marks. It's merely a statement. (And even that is too wordy.)

Here's what I typically see in a first-year essay:

  • In the quotation by XXX, ...

Or worse:

  • XXX quoted, "...."

Neither of these should use the word "quoted" or "quotation."

Instead of "quoted," you can simply say "said." Or use the old standby, "according to" followed by the name then a comma and then the quotation itself.

  • According to Shakespeare, "Life is but a stage..."
Here's the worst way to quote in an essay:
  • In a research study by Smith and Smith on essay writing,  it says "Essay writing is hard."
If you are worried about your word count, then this could be the way to go, but for whatever marks you save by being long enough, you will lose marks for poor writing. We already know it was a research study, that's why it has been published. Naming anything and then using "it" can't be good. How about the following?
  • According to Smith and Smith, "Essay writing is hard."
We've turned 17 words into 9. That's almost a 50% savings. And who wouldn't like 50% off? I'm sure the person who marks your essay would really enjoy this.

When do you say quotation?

In the rare cases when you would use the word quotation, it would be if you need to be explicit about someone using someone else's words.

  • A poster with a quotation from Plato graced the classroom.

  • Smith's quotation of Descartes' statement, "I think, therefore I am," was illogical and inappropriate.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Grammarly: instant grammar checker

You can't have missed the ads for Grammarly if you're interested in writing. Not only does Google serve up Grammarly ads on most of my web pages, I actively advertise it. Although many people need a human proofreader, others can benefit from an automatic review of their writing. Last spring, while on vacation in Hawaii, I met an author who self-published her book with the help of Grammarly's oversight. She swore by it. So I decided to give it a try.

Grammarly: Free proofreading

Grammarly underlines errors in red.
You can use the free version of Grammarly as a Chrome extension. This will provide you with an automatic review as you type. Like the grammar tools in MS Word, the free Grammarly underlines misspelled words in red, and it allows you to add words to a custom dictionary. The paid version also imports MS Word documents and offers advice on wording. It offers a document score based on "critical issues" and "advanced issues." It identifies "overused" words as well. A critical issue is an explicit grammar error. An advanced issue could be a problem with the wording or an error of style.

Critical Issues and Advanced Issues

Passive voice is actually correct here.
Six of one; half dozen of the other.
I found that the most common "advanced issue" was that Grammarly doesn't like the passive voice. Unfortunately, in most academic papers, the passive voice is commonly and correctly used. It's possible to adjust the settings for different types of documents, but what would be really great would be if Grammarly learned from your writing style to determine what kinds of errors to flag. For advanced academic documents, such as the ones that I edit regularly, Grammarly tended to flag not only passive voice constructions but also other issues such as "wordiness." A sentence with a complex phrase as a subject followed by a number of clauses would be flagged as "wordiness," even though it is both grammatically correct and necessary to express a complex thought. On the other hand, common phrases like "to" should definitely be shortened to simply "to." One critical issue that I grew to appreciate was the way Grammarly flagged missing serial commas.

Not as Good as a Human

Grammarly, however, also failed to notice errors regularly. Frequently, I find that writers substitute incorrect words for what they meant to write. For example, Grammarly failed to understand that "attribute to the development" cannot possibly be correct. The correct phrase should have been "contribute to the development." Grammarly adheres to obsolete grammar rules such as the one against a split infinitive.

I've been using Grammarly on work I've already corrected, and it's been helpful, but it doesn't replace a close reading by an expert set of eyes. I usually catch additional errors on my second and third times through documents before I send them back to clients. But what about poor writers? Can it help them?
Here's a sample of writing that was sent in for free proofreading. Notice that Grammarly incorrectly flags "learned," which is an acceptable British variant. It correctly flags the misspelling of "modern." But it doesn't seem to care about the sentence that's made up of a series of cascading clauses separated by semicolons. Even though the passage is about education, it flags "education" as a repetitive word. I'm not sure that this writer would find his/her mark improved by the use of Grammarly.

Plagiarism Detection

I can't give a fair evaluation of the plagiarism detection capability. I tried copying a paragraph from Wikipedia and running it through Grammarly, and Grammarly accurately identified it and its source. It also provided correctly formatted references to be used. But that's no guarantee that something that passes Grammarly's test will get past the plagiarism software that your school uses.


I'm actually impressed by Grammarly's ability to quickly run through text. I used it to review a 60 page Ph.D. thesis that another editor and I had each worked on, and it found several errors, including that troubling serial comma. For a final proofing of a document that is largely correct, it could be very helpful. In fact, I'm using it right now! If you are a good writer and you understand the rules of grammar, it could be a great tool. It will help you hone your writing.

But if you are struggling with your writing, tend to use incorrect words, or don't understand the rules of grammar that you are violating, you need a professional proofreader or tutor. Grammarly either won't help you improve your writing, or it will confuse you without telling you how to fix your errors.

Update July 2017

I've been using Grammarly regularly now for a year. All of what I wrote above is still true. Grammarly makes plenty of mistakes, but it's very useful for final proofreading.