5 Common APA Format Mistakes

Last Updated on May 23, 2019 by Ayla Myrick

It has been said that “the devil’s in the details,”  and anyone who has tried to adhere to every aspect of APA style knows that proverb is true, especially when it comes to getting a thesis or dissertation approved by a committee.

While this document doesn’t cover every aspect of APA style, it does provide a starting point for some of the most common mistakes that writers make. Note that all references to sections and page numbers refer to the 6th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (a.k.a., the APA Style Manual).

1. Hyphens (section 4.13)

Many common prefixes do not need a hyphen after them, such as pre and post in pretest and posttest. However, the rules for hyphens are fairly complicated, so consult the APA Style Manual for details, especially the tables on pages 98 and 99.

2. Abbreviations/Acronyms (sections 4.22-4.30)

Generally, abbreviations and acronyms should be used if they will be easy for the reader to remember and if using them will eliminate unnecessary repetition. Specifically, do not introduce an abbreviation or acronym if it will be used fewer than four times in the document. The first time you use the item to be abbreviated, place the acronym after it in parentheses:

  • membership in the National Education Association (NEA)

Once you have explained the acronym the first time, use it throughout the rest of the document, without explanation.

There are several exceptions to this rule:

  • Do not use acronyms in a table or figure.
  • Some acronyms can be used without explanation, as they are commonly accepted as words (i.e., REM, HIV/AIDS).
  • Do not use “U.S.” as an abbreviation of “United States,” unless it is being used as an adjective.  For example, “U.S. Senate” is correct, while “resident of the U.S.” is not.

3. Lists (section 3.04)

While bullets were previously a “no-no,” they are now permitted when listing items (also referred to as seriation), according to the 6th edition of the APA Style Manual.
Two other options are available for lists as well. The first involves using letters to identify items in a series within a sentence or paragraph: The three choices for the question are (a) true, (b) false, or (c) don’t know.

The second option involves numbering each item with an Arabic number followed by a period and making each item its own paragraph:

  1. Job training and counseling reduces unemployment.
  2. Resident-backed strategies spur economic growth, reduce crime, and combat housing discrimination and homelessness.
  3. Local credit unions offer financial assistance to new businesses.

4. Parenthetical References for Authors With the Same Last Name (section 6.14)
When you cite sources by authors with the same last name, distinguish between them by using the author’s first initial in the citation, even if the sources’ years of publication are different: (D. Clark & Moore, 2001; T. Clark, 2006).

5. Numbers (sections 4.31-4.38)

The most common questions regarding numbers relate to whether numerals or words should be used. In APA style, numerals are used in the following situations:

  • To express numbers 10 and larger.
  • To express any number in the document’s abstract or any graphical display.
  • To express numbers below 10 that are grouped with numbers 10 and larger (4 of 23 participants in the study).
  • To express numbers preceding a unit of measurement (5 miles, a 75 mg dose).
  • To express numbers in mathematical or statistical functions, decimals, fractions, percentages, and ratios (multiplied by 9, 46% of participants).
  • To express units of time, dates, ages, sample or population size, numbers of participants in a study, scores and points on a scale, and sums of money (in 6 years; September 11, 2001, $67 billion).
  • To express page numbers or parts of a table or figure (page 76; Table 3).

Note that any time a number begins a sentence, it should be written out, or the sentence should be rephrased so that the number is not at the beginning of the sentence.

Always remember that your university may have its own style guide that differs from the APA Style Manual in some of these areas or others, and your university’s requirements always take precedence over the APA Style Manual.

Ayla Myrick