In English grammar, a signal phrase is a phrase, clause, or sentence that introduces a quotation, paraphrase, or summary. It's also called a quotative frame or a dialogue guide.
A signal phrase includes a verb (such as said or wrote) along with the name of the person who's being quoted. Although a signal phrase most often appears before a quotation, the phrase may instead come after it or in the middle of it. Editors and style guides generally advise writers to vary the positions of signal phrases to improve readability throughout a text.
Examples of How to Vary Signal Phrases
- Maya Angelou said, "Start loving yourself before you ask someone else to love you."
- "Start loving yourself before you ask someone else to love you," Maya Angelou said.
- "Start loving yourself," Maya Angelou said, "before you ask someone else to love you."
- As Mark Twain observed, "Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions."
- According to Frito-Lay research, women snack only 14 percent…
- The candidate insisted that the tariff must be reduced to a "competitive basis" and taxes…
- Undernourished children have long been India's scourge-“a national shame,” in the words of its prime minister …
Common signal phrase verbs include the following: argue, assert, claim, comment, confirm, contend, declare, deny, emphasize, illustrate, imply, insist, note, observe, point out, report, respond, say, suggest, think, and write.
Context, Flow, and Citation
In nonfiction, signal phrases are used to give attribution rather than set off dialogue. They are important to use when you are paraphrasing or quoting someone's ideas other than your own, as at best it's intellectually dishonest if not plagiarism to do so, depending on the amount of text used and how closely it mirrors the original text.
"A signal phrase usually names the author of the source and often provides some context for the source material. The first time you mention an author, use the full name: Shelby Foote argues… When you refer to the author again, you may use the last name only: Foote raises an important question.
"A signal phrase indicates the boundary between your words and the source's words."
(Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, A Pocket Style Manual, 6th ed. Macmillan, 2012)
"Readers should never be in doubt about your use of a source. Your frame can introduce, interrupt, follow, or even surround the words or ideas taken from sources, but be sure that your signal phrases are grammatical and lead naturally into the material."
(John J. Ruszkiewicz and Jay T. Dolmage, How to Write Anything: A Guide and Reference With Readings. Macmillan, 2010)
"If we mention the author's name in the text in a signal phrase ('According to Richard Lanham… '), then the parenthetical citation includes the page number only (18). If we use more than one work by an author, and we have identified his or her name in the text, our parenthetical citation must include a short title of the work cited and a page number ( Style 18)."
(Scott Rice, Right Words, Right Places. Wadsworth, 1993)
"You… need to integrate borrowed material naturally into your own work so that it reads smoothly as part of your paper… Leaving the signal phrase out results in an error known as dropped quotation. Dropped quotations appear out of nowhere. They can confuse your reader and interrupt the flow of your own writing."
(Luis A. Nazario, Deborah D. Borchers, and William F. Lewis, Bridges to Better Writing, 2nd ed. Cengage, 2013)
Punctuating Signal Phrases
Punctuating signal phrases in a sentence is simple and straightforward. "If the quotation begins the sentence, the words telling who is speaking… are set off with a comma unless the quotation ends with a question mark or an exclamation point…
"'I didn't even know it was broken,' I said.
"'Do you have any questions?' she asked.
"'You mean I can go!' I answered excitedly.
"'Yes,' she said, 'consider this just a warning.'
"Notice that most of the previous quotations begin with a capital letter. But when a quotation is interrupted by a signal phrase, the second part doesn't begin with a capital letter unless the second part is a new sentence."
(Paige Wilson and Teresa Ferster Glazier, The Least You Should Know About English: Writing Skills, 12th ed. Cengage, 2015)