What Is the APA Format? (With Levels and Mechanics of Style)

Updated September 30, 2022

Various assignments and academic disciplines outline styles they expect professionals or students to use. Most of the papers in the social sciences, including sociology, anthropology, and psychology, use the American Psychological Association format. Understanding how to apply this format in your writing can help you comply with the expectations of your field and provide excellent professional articles that peer-reviewers welcome. In this article, we explore what the APA format is, detail the levels of this style, outline the components of this format, and discuss when to use it.

What is the APA format?

The APA format comprises a set of guidelines, rules, and styles that professionals and students commonly apply when writing in social science fields or disciplines related to psychology. In 1929, the American Psychological Association created a publication manual with this format. The Association has updated the manual that initially appeared as a short article into an expansive publication now in its seventh edition with guidelines on the formatting, organization, referencing, and structure of research materials and articles in psychology-related fields.

This format aims to foster clear and concise scientific inquiry and expression by standardizing the format and structure of articles, books, chapters, theses, and research papers. This style's emphasis on scientific and direct expressions makes it suitable for examining scientific principles and subjects. The APA style also emphasizes clarity for the reader and writer by making standard requirements for organization, writing style, reference citing, and specific requirements for each discipline.

Levels in the APA style

While the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association is nearly 300 pages long, here are the three fundamental levels of the APA style:


The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association provides information for the organization of articles and manuscripts in its second chapter. It explains specific orders for articles, manuscripts, and research papers. For instance, the chapter explains that when citing empirical research papers or reports, to list the information as title page, abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion, and references.

Related: How to Write an Effective Abstract

High-level writing style

Adopting the APA style in your writing involves using a formal tone. The third chapter of the Publication Manual outlines this level of the APA style, stating specific guidelines for appropriate expressions and communicating ideas. This style emphasizes that you communicate ideas as clearly and concisely as possible while avoiding slang, humour, pop culture references, and other informal communication components.

This style prioritizes technical terms as it assumes the audience of the content is professionals within the field. Another provision of this level of the APA style involves avoiding biased language or expression to improve scientific objectivity, avoiding negative connotations, and achieving specificity. The writing style also encourages the use of "participants" instead of "subjects."

Related: Types of Variables in Statistics and Research (With FAQs)

Low-level writing style

The low-level component of the APA style addresses the specific guidelines relating to grammar, reference citations, referencing style, statistics, numerals, tables, figures, and spelling. The fourth and seventh chapters of the Publication Manual address this aspect of the APA style. There are numerous guidelines relating to this level of APA, and it's helpful as you draft your paper and organize your manuscript to ensure that your writing aligns with the requirements of the style and avoids common mistakes relating to hyphenation and commas.

Components of the APA's mechanics of style

Applying the APA style in your writing requires an extensive understanding of the numerous guidelines relating to mechanics of the style, including:


The rules that guide punctuation in articles and reports using the APA style undergo frequent revisions. These revisions make it important to update your knowledge of the rules when writing your reports or articles to help ensure they remain in line with the APA's mechanics of style requirements. These guidelines concern the appropriate use of commas, semicolons, parentheses, dashes, periods, question marks, and colons. Considering the general aim of the APA style to make articles clear and understandable, it's helpful to construct short sentences that require minimal punctuation.


The general rule in the APA mechanics of style applies to the capitalization of titles, proper nouns, and headings. Proper nouns include job titles, brand names, names of organizations, names of countries and geographic locations, and names of people and ethnic groups. The APA style provides two forms of capitalization, including the title and sentence cases. You can apply the title case when writing titles, headings, or naming tables within your paper. You can use the sentence case when making references or writing entries for table columns.

Using the title case in your manuscript or article involves capitalizing the first word in the title, the subtitle, and all words with more than three letters. It also involves capitalizing the first word of the sentence and any other proper noun. It's important to ensure you apply sentence case when writing references, even if the reference takes a title case or had full capitalization in its source.


The provisions of the APA style on grammar are largely flexible and concern the application of grammatical components like pronouns, verbs, and syntax. Some of the grammar guidelines address the use of logical comparisons, the use of past tense when describing research and participant reactions, and the use of present tense when reflecting or making observations. It also addresses the avoidance of referring to yourself in the third person and the use of the singular "they" pronoun where the gender of participants is unknown. This style also allows the occasional use of passive voice while it recommends active voice.

Hyphenation and spelling

Hyphenating recurring components of your research or creating temporary compound words can improve the ease of reading for content. The APA's mechanics of style avoids the hyphenation of words with prefixes and suffixes, and it also combines common compound words like "preexisting" and "antisocial" into a single unit. You can also derive temporary compound words in your research by creating descriptors related to your research, like "abuse-resistant-user."


When applying the APA style to your papers, you can omit the definitions for common abbreviations and Latin phrases. It's important to define less common abbreviations or terms when they first appear in your writing, then refer to them with abbreviations in subsequent appearances. For instance, you can introduce PTSD as "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)." The use of acronyms in the APA style doesn't require periods between the letters.

Related: Professional Abbreviations: Definition, Examples, and Tips

In-text citations

Making accurate references to the source of your information and data is an essential part of scholarly writing, as it helps to avoid plagiarism. It's important to track sources or articles you reference while you draft your work. In-text citations help you quote directly, paraphrase, and summarize from other sources in the body of your writing. The APA style outlines the requirements for an author-date citation which contains the author's name, publication date, and the relevant page number.

The APA style offers the narrative and parenthetical styles of in-text citations. The narrative style allows you to make references to the source of the quote or information naturally by describing the circumstances of publication. You can also describe the nature of the research that provided a discovery or the event where the cited source made its remark. The parenthetical method involves using parentheses after using the contents of a source within your article. Some guidelines for citing references include using quotation marks for direct quotes with three words or more and using publication titles for sources without authors.

Related: Research Skills: Definition and Examples

When to use the APA format

Here are some of the disciplines and articles types that require the APA style:

College assignments and projects

The APA style has one of the most versatile applications. You can use this style when working on an academic assignment or project, as it helps you maintain a formal tone and cite your references adequately. It's important to check your college, university, or departmental requirements to ensure they accept or recommend using the APA style.

Research thesis or reports

The APA style is a good fit when making your research proposals to faculty or a panel. You can also use this style to outline reports from your research. The APA style provides a distinct structure or reporting your empirical research, including the abstract, introduction, research methodology, results, discussion, and references.

Business reports for scientific organizations

The formal tone of the APA style makes it applicable to a variety of business and professional writings. The use of expressions in the APA style also allows you to express complex business situations or economic theories in concise and clear language. You can also use these technical expressions to resonate better with the audience of your articles or reports.

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