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Signal the Use of a Source

In this handout, we’ll be looking at how to signal source material. This handout assumes that you know how to paraphrase and summarize, and it operates under two key premises:

  1. Source material cannot make your points for you. Essentially, source material backs up your points; therefore, you will typically have to introduce source material and comment on how it helps prove your point.
  2. The reader has to be able to distinguish source material from your commentary. (If the reader cannot, then you are guilty of plagiarism.)

You can signal the beginning of the source material through writing strategies for paraphrased, summarized, or directly quoted material. Ultimately, signaling to source material helps you avoid plagiarism and, more importantly, makes your writing flow smoothly. As always, when you use source material, whether that source material is paraphrased, summarized, or directly quoted, you’ll need to cite appropriately. You’ll notice in our examples that we’ve always cited. Our examples may be in either APA or MLA documentation style.

Let’s look at three strategies you can use to signal source material:

Strategy 1: Introduce Your Sources

You can use dialogue tags, phrases, and sentences to signal the use of source material.

Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags can signal the use of source materials. You can try something as simple as “John Doe says.” To punctuate a dialogue tag, when the source is directly quoted, you typically use a comma. Let’s look at an example:

Shakespeare says, “that time of year thou mayest in me behold” (line 1).

In the example above, the source material is directly quoted. You also can use this strategy with summarized or paraphrased material.

Schayan (2001) indicates that minimal pair drills rely upon a contrast of sound to accomplish the goals of auditory training.

As with all of these techniques, overusing any one of them may lead to your paper sounding repetitive and uninspired. In fact, “John Doe says” and “John Doe states” are the most overused techniques for incorporating source material. The problem may not be with the technique itself, but in the overuse of the verbs “says” and “states.” Try this technique out with more descriptive verbs. A short list of verbs appears below.

Verbs to Use Instead of “Says/Said or States/Stated”
addresses, analyzes, contributes, critiques,
defines, discovers, disproves, establishes,
evaluates, examines, formulates, identifies,
proposes, questions, recommends, reiterates,
reports, suggests, thinks, urges

Many other descriptive verbs are available. Remember when you use verbs you must be faithful to the purpose and attitude of the original source.

While dialogue tags can signal the use of source material effectively, this technique can seem unimaginative and even boring, especially if it is employed every time source material is used.


Introductory phrases can include a variety of information to signal that the following information is source material; however, you will want to be certain that the information you include adds to the overall meaning of the sentence. Let’s look at two examples:

According to Locker (2001), author of Business and Administrative Communication, women may feel uneasy upon receiving ordinarily positive comments on their appearance from male coworkers or supervisors.

In a discussion of document design, Heffernan and Lincoln (1997) indicate that audience analysis should be employed by the writers of a document to determine the design of a document.

These examples show how effective introductory phrases incorporate information that enhances the meaning of the sentence. In the Locker example, providing the name of the text helps establish the authority of the author, while the phrase “in a discussion of document design” helps establish a context for the quoted material. The examples also show that you can include a variety of information to signal source information such as the author’s name, title of work, or a summary of content, and many more are possible. However, be careful not to provide too much information in your introductory phrase because providing too much information will detract from the source material. Remember, your point is to lead into the source material.


An introductory sentence like “Jane Doe describes the Bolshevik Revolution” is yet another option for introducing source material. As with phrases, you will want to include information in the introductory sentence that adds to the meaning of the source material you’re citing. These sentences will be punctuated with a colon. Let’s look at two examples.

In The Power of Myth, a conversation about mythology, Joseph Campbell enlightens Bill Moyers about how a dream differs from a myth: “Oh, because a dream is a personal experience of that deep, dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. […]” (p. 40).

Yet another author agrees that one of the first steps in solving interference-related mispronunciation is auditory discrimination training: An instructor might use minimal pairs such as pit/bit or pin/bin to help students understand the difference between the phonemes /b/ and /p/ (Dickson, 2001).

Again, in your introductory sentence, you’ll want accurately to represent or explain the source material or set up how the source material relates to your point for the paragraph.

Strategy 2: Divide Your Sources

Another strategy you can employ to signal your sources is to divide your source material. You have to use this technique carefully because this technique results in a sentence that feels a little choppy. You can use this technique if you want to add emphasis to the source material, or cause your reader to mentally pause between two pieces of source material. Two examples of this technique are below.

“Despite changing membership over time,” Dye (1995) states, “the Supreme Court has not altered its policy regarding affirmative action as a remedy for past discrimination” (p. 62).

“Men lack heart,” writes Pascal, “they would not make a friend of it” (p. 31).

Ultimately, this technique can be very effective; however, use it sparingly to avoid losing the effectiveness of the emphasis and to avoid creating paragraphs that sound choppy and awkward.

Strategy 3: Use Key Phrases

You may not need to quote entire sentences or passages of a source to get your point across. In this case, you may want to quote key phrases.

With this technique, you will integrate key phrases from your sources into your sentences. You may choose these phrases for several reasons. You may believe that the words of the author are memorable or remarkable because of their effectiveness or historical flavor. Additionally, the author may have said a phrase so well that you feel you could not improve upon the phrase itself, or you may need to comment upon the words themselves. Let’s look at a few examples:

Reporter Jack Nimeson (2000) speculated in his Opinions column whether modern cinema should be “bemoaned for its lack of heart and intellect” (A-2).

Locker (2000) indicates that Web searches can yield thousands of results, unless the searcher is careful to employ “wild cards,” which are symbols (p. 380). These symbols allow for variations such as plural endings.

As with all strategies, when you include key phrases, your surrounding text should accurately represent the intent of the original document. Essentially, you can’t use an author’s words out of context to support your point.