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Students are confused when they learn that what was presented as an APA rule does not show up in the APA Publication Manual or on the APA website. While committees and URRs have substantial control over a capstone, preferences ought not be confused with APA rules.

Discerning and enforcing the difference between rules (as distinct from preferences) is the responsibility of the committee and URR. But it is not easy to know—let alone make plain to students—all the rules of APA and all the subtleties of composition and the English language. Some rules may seem new; some rules may just be misremembered.  

In your advice to students, try to recognize the difference between a rule and a preference. Avoid insisting on personal preferences; there are surely more ways than one to say something. To make sure your guidance is true to the source, consider looking up a few of your APA rules in the Publication Manual (or online at “APA + [name of topic]”). When you find the rule, you might offer students the subsection number.

You might also step back a moment and reflect on how you feel about writing in general, about judging writing, and about giving written feedback on writing. As we all know, these tasks are not easy, they are not black and white, and your time is limited. No doubt, it’s easier and faster to dictate blanket prohibitions and blanket requirements. But, of course, this would not be fair to students if there are exceptions or if APA is not behind you.

While APA’s Publication Manual covers most topics, it does not cover all of them (and admits it). For example, because APA is silent on formatting the Table of Contents, Walden has established its own guidelines. If in doubt about any APA or Walden rule, feel free to drop a line to the editors ( for an informed opinion based on reviewing thousands of dissertations, doctoral studies, chapters, and sections.

While the word that can sometimes be dropped to improve concision, it is often critical to the syntax and meaning of a sentence.

The overuse of any one word can be irritating to readers (not to mention boring). But elimination is not necessarily the answer. In English, the word that has many uses. Eliminating it categorically could result in imprecise or improper prose. Even when it isn't necessary, it can be used to improve clarity and flow. Here are three sets of examples in which the word that is required, optional but recommended, and strictly optional.



As a demonstrative adjective: Researchers established an interview protocol. That process has now been tested.

As a pronoun: Statistics have shown X. As convincing as that is, other data have shown Y.


Optional, but recommended

  • When used with reporting verbs or linking verbs such as found, reported, posited, argued, claimed, maintained, andhypothesized. Example: Smith (2015) reported that more research was necessary. Jones (2014) asserted that confidentiality was maintained throughout the study.
  • While we may well be used to dropping that in spoken English, it is usually maintained for clarity in formal written English (Caplan, 2012).



  • When that functions as a relative pronoun (The article that I requested was on gun control) or as the object of a sentence (Gun control is a controversial issue that is about personal rights), it can, and usually is, omitted. While its use here is not strictly wrong, deleting it from the relative clause creates a more concise sentence (Some of the participants lived in urban areas that had with high crime rates).

For more on this issue, see the materials on the Writing Center website.

While anthropomorphism is common and acceptable in everyday speech, it can be confusing or inaccurate in scientific or scholarly writing. But not everything is anthropomorphism. Accurate recognition is the key.

Allowing anthropomorphism to creep into scholarly writing is a problem: It can sound ungrammatical, and it can confuse readers and make them stumble. To avoid it, we need to know just what does and does not constitute this error. Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious. 

The APA Publication Manual (2020) defined anthropomorphism as attributing human action to nonhuman sources or objects. Although inanimate sources or objects typically cannot perform human actions, they can perform some types of action. 

In the following examples, anthropomorphic writing is avoided by using the noun researchers, the first person, and the name Rogers. All help clarify the action and avoid the passive voice.

Incorrect: The theory concluded that transformational leadership style influences follower job satisfaction.

Problem: A theory cannot reach conclusions. Active verbs require people, or a group of people, such as an organization.

Correct: The researchers concluded that transformational leadership style influences follower job satisfaction.


Incorrect: The study explored personnel turnover in a small grocery store.

Problem: A study cannot explore. Active verbs require people, or a group of people, such as an organization.

Correct: In this study, I explored personnel turnover in a small grocery store.


Incorrect: The article discussed the prevalence of HIV in suburban communities.

Problem: An article cannot discuss, it is simply written composition, but the writer/author/researcher can and did write. Again, can and did are active verbs that involve a human action.  Discussing and speaking are verbs—and only humans can carry out these actions.

Correct: Rogers (2010) discussed the prevalence of HIV in suburban communities.

At first glance, the following examples may look like anthropomorphism, but they are not. That’s because theories, models, tables, data, results, and so on, can perform some actions. For example, they can show, present, demonstrate and indicate:

  • The results showed a relationship between time spent in the intervention program and student standardized test scores.

  • The table presents information on the demographics of this study.

  • The data demonstrated that increasing awareness of diabetes indicators can help patients reduce their risk of contracting diabetes.

  • The theory indicates that societies work much like ecological systems, with different groups playing different and necessary roles in the larger system.  

APA style expert blogger Chelsea Lee offers four tips for avoiding anthropomorphism (personal communication, February 25, 2016):

  • Make it clear who is doing what.

  • Make sure that only humans are given human characteristics and perform human actions.

  • Be direct in your language and sentence structure.

  • Make sure that descriptions are always directly next to what they are describing.

In passive voice, the actor (person or thing) does not appear in the sentence, or it appears after the verb. The verb itself is most telling: Passive voice requires not just a past-tense form of the verb "to be"—"was" or "were"—it also requires a second verb, as in "was performed," or "were discussed."

Passive voice (object–verb–subject) is not wrong. APA does not forbid it. It is just a style, a choice, like so many others the writer must make. In the social science literature, the passive voice is common, perhaps too common. The subject of a sentence should not typically be kept in the background nor should the emphasis of a sentence typically be on the direct object. The results can be weak, monotonous sentences: In passive voice, it can seem like nothing happens. At the same time, in research, what was said or done is often more important than who said or did it.

Active voice, which looks like this, subject–verb–object, is not inherently good. APA simply prefers it where logical. Having a subject in the foreground gives a sentence momentum; it makes plain who did what. Such sentences are clearer and easier to read.

To avoid passive voice, the student would have to use first person, third person, or even anthropomorphism. First person is the best choice—when permitted—provided it isn't used to state opinions or feelings. Third person doesn’t always work well, especially when the writer is discussing an action or assertion of his or her own. As discussed above, APA does not allow anthropomorphism, so these choices can create dilemmas for a writer.

Here is a short guide to making choices regarding voice:      

  1. Active is preferred, especially when the actor is important: The principal investigator collected the data.

  2. Passive is useful, for example, when the actor is not important or style variety is needed.

  3. Sometimes the passive voice is needed, for example, when an actor is unknown (think archives): The data were collected.

  4. Use first person (I) rather than passive to clarify the writer’s own work: I collected the data.

If properly selected, presented, and explained, a direct quote can enhance meaning and understanding.

In direct quotations, one writer borrows another writer’s exact word(s) and incorporates them into her own paper. But because all writers are not good borrowers—many students still have much to learn about the proper use of quotations—there is reason to deflect their use in dissertations and doctoral studies.

  • While paraphrasing and summarizing are typically preferred to quoting—and for good reason—preventing any quotations could yield losses:
    • A loss of evidence.

    • A loss of immediacy and authenticity.

    • A potential loss of accuracy and clarity (due to weak paraphrasing or summarizing).

    • A loss of participants’ voices.

  • Yet knowledge and practice are needed to quote well. Here is a series of basics that you might pass on to your students:
    • Quotes are used discretely, sparingly, carefully.

    • Quotes need to blend seamlessly into the narrative.

    • Quotes are best used to emphasize a point; they are not used to make claims.

    • Quotes are used only when the source’s words are worth being quoted.

    • Quotes are used to best effect when the author’s words are very well stated or are too complex to accurately paraphrase.

    • Avoid any misquoting of the text or the citation—including punctuation.

    • Avoid stringing quotes together without interpretations or summaries or illuminating transitions.

    • Avoid quoting full sentences; rather, carefully integrate the text into your narrative.

    • Avoid quoting any more of the original than necessary.

Avoid starting a paragraph with a quote because paragraphs typically start with a topic sentence; avoid ending a paragraph with a quote because quotes are typically interpreted.