Eight: Signal Phrases & Smooth Connections

At this point, we’ve covered most of the skills needed to write interesting and effective papers.

We have learned about thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions. We’ve discussed note-taking strategies and the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing. In the previous lesson we learned about picking the right quotes to support your argument. Finally, we will discuss how to use signal phrases to properly integrate those quotations in the paper so they seamlessly connect your argument with the broad critical conversation.

What are Signal Phrases?

Signal phrases are introductory words that help integrate quotes into a paper. They act as a bridge between your argument and the critical sources you use as support for your argument. Without them, your quotes feel like they’ve been dropped in the middle of the paper without any context.

Context is the key word here. You want the quotations to feel like a natural part of the paper. Shifting between your words and the words of experts should be fluid. It shouldn’t feel abrupt or stilted. Signal phrases are what enable these smooth transitions in the text.

Even good writers can struggle with proper integration of quotations. The trouble is we know what we want to say, and sometimes it can be tricky to incorporate the words of others into our argument without it feeling forced to an outside reader. Learning to carefully employ signal phrases is the answer. This skill will help set your writing apart, and it will demonstrate that you can effectively join the critical conversation.

Examples of Good Signal Phrases

So what do signal phrases look like?

Writing a good signal phrase is actually pretty easy once you know how. It only takes a few words, but they make a big difference in the way a paper reads.

The first instinct of beginning writers is take a quote and drop it in the middle of a paragraph. Often, there is no introduction of the quote and no context given for it. That’s a no-no. We need to set the quote up and show why it makes sense in the spot we cited it. Here’s the trick to making that happen.

Let’s pretend we are writing a paper about personal enlightenment and the acquisition of knowledge. In fact, let’s take it a step further and say we are making a case that the Internet is the great democratizer of education, and that with it, all people now have the opportunity to become enlightened.

In this paper, we are going to cite Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as one of our critical sources. So, we have the quote we want to use, and we know the place in our paper we want to put that quote.

The secret to integrating our quote smoothly is to add a couple of introductory words that set up the quote and place it within the context of our own argument.

Without the ability to gain new knowledge, humans are trapped in a cycle of ignorance and therefore do not even know what they do not know. This argument is supported by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave when he asks “How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?” (22).

Notice how the first sentence here is my own argument. Then, in sentence two, I make a smooth connection (a bridge) between my argument and the quote I am about to cite by using the words “This argument is supported by.” It gives the quote context and shows how it connects to the discussion.

Secondly, I mentioned the author of the quote (Plato) and the text the quote came from (Allegory of the Cave) in my signal phrase. It tells the reader who you are quoting and from which text. By doing this, you give the original author credit and you also establish additional context for the reader.

These are the three crucial elements of a good signal phrase:

  1. Create a smooth transition by referencing the current discussion.
  2. State the author you are quoting.
  3. State the text from which the quote has been pulled.

If you include these three elements in signal phrases for each of your quotations, you will be in good shape. Later, you can learn variations on this basic formula, but for now you won’t go wrong to simply stick with it for all your quotes. Master the signal phrase and you’ll be quoting like a boss in no time.

For more information and additional writing tools, check out our Developmental Writing Resources page.