Describing what authors are doing


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Referring to or acknowledging other writers' arguments, proposals, or claims is fundamental to academic writing. Citation and attribution are part of the social process of using other people's ideas in our academic work, but they are often confused:

  • Citation is merely reference to someone's work, naming one or more of their publications
  • Attribution is the public association of an author with a particular assertion or finding.  

To be effective and sensitive, citation and attribution depend on a rich, varied range of vocabulary and expression. The vocabulary for describing what authors are doing includes so-called "attribution" verbs.

Here are some common attribution verbs and their uses:

Identifying authors with areas of study

  • Examine -- “Min-Zhan Lu (1992) has examined the differences between ... L1 composition pedagogies ...” (Severino, 1993, p. 183).
  • Address -- “Kuno (1992) specifically addressed the distribution of these two particles and concludes that ...“
  • Develop -- In her theory of emotion, Ahmed (2014) develops the idea that hate groups mobilize "hate as a passionate attachment closely tied to love" (p. 43)
  • Use [X to do Y] -- Thomas Barone (1989; 1993), for example, has used educational criticism to focus attention on how schools fail to meet the needs of underachieving students (Flinders & Eisner, 1994, p.  350).
  • Stress -- In 1970, Foucault began to stress the connection between reason and power (Poster, 1994, p. 177).

Asserting a view or position

  • Suggest -- In the Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014), Sarah Ahmed suggests that "compulsory heterosexuality shapes which bodies one 'can' legitimately approach as would-be lovers and which one cannot" (p. 145)
  • Propose -- Sheetz-Brunetti and Johnson (1983) have proposed the use of simple diagrams ... to teach ESL compositions skills
  • Argue --“As Gill Valentine has argued, the ‘heterosexualisation’ of public spaces such as streets is naturalized by the repetition of different forms of heterosexual conduct (images on billboards, music played, displays of heterosexual intimacy and so on), a process which goes unnoticed by heterosexual subjects (Valentine 1996: 149)” (Ahmed, 2014, p. 148

Demonstrating a case

  • Demonstrate -- “As Tollefson (1989) demonstrates, it is often the case that U.S. policies ... have contributed to their immigration to the U.S. in the first place” (Severino, 1993, p. 183).
  • Show -- “Meyer's research (1975) has shown that the hierarchical content structure of a text plays an important role in reading comprehension” (Carrell, 1987, p. 47). /  “Johnson et al[.] (1985) showed that on average there was actually more Cantonese spoken than English ...” (Bruce, 1990, p. 11).

Using one author in relation to another

You can’t cite an argument! Instead, you have to attribute the argument to a specific author or authors. Therefore, when we want to align or distance ourselves from a specific argument or perspective, we need to reference authors. In order to do this effectively, we often appeal to another authority who has identified the same area of difference or alignment in perspective.

For example: “Sullivan explicitly defines his project as a way of supporting and extending the ideal of the family by showing how those who are ‘not it’ seek to ‘become it’ [….] This mimicry is, as Douglas Crimp (2002) has argued, a way of sustaining the psychic conditions of melancholia insofar as Sullivan identifies with that which he cannot be […] As Crimp remarks, Sullivan is ‘incapable of recognizing the intractability of homophobia because his melancholia consists precisely in his identification with the homophobe’s repudiation of him’ (Crimp 2002: 6)” (Ahmed, 2014, p. 150).

Defining key terms

  • In parentheses -- "In these ... studies, [we have] the opportunity for 'thick description' (Geertz, 1973) of the texts ..." [Severino, 1993, p. 190]

    Note: Clifford Geertz is a social anthropologist who coined the term "thick description" as an anthropological technique. Here, Severino acknowledges that authorship by simple citation in parentheses
  • Use -- "To use Frederick Erickson's (1984) terms, the micropolitics of the ESL teaching/learning situation inevitably reflect the macropolitics of the world situation" (Severino, 1993, p. 183).

    Note: The terms being used here are "micropolitics" and "macropolitics"; you can choose not to put these terms in quotation marks (or to do so, as we have done here!).
  • Call --  "This stance, or, as Phelps (1989) calls it, the deep structure of response to writing, is determined by a complex of many factors ... " (Severino, 1993, p. 184).
    "To raise a different question, will these lessons in some way promote what E.D. Hirsch (1987) calls cultural literacy ?" (Flinders & Eisner, 1994, p. 351)

Note: In these examples, the authors haSve chosen not to put the terms in quotation marks. Note also the different placement of the terms and attributions to an author: one at the beginning, the other at the end, of the sentence.

  • Characterize -- Ahmed (2014) characterizes familiar narratives as "deserv[ing] close and careful reading" (p. 1). 


  • Term -- "In Hong Kong, the estimated 95% Cantonese-L1 population have what Giles [and] Johnson (1987, p. 72) term a positive ethnolinguistic identity ..." (Bruce, 1990, p. 10)

Note: you can insert the phrase “what author’s name (year) calls/terms” between a verb and its object without having to change the rest of the sentence.

E.g. “the aim is to promote cultural literacy” --> “the aim is to promote what Hirsch (1987) calls cultural literacy.”

Some examples adapted from the English Centre, HKU