Epigraphs For Essays

An epigraph is a stand-alone quotation that appears before the beginning of a text. Epigraphs tend to be used as a literary device in fictional writing to engage a reader’s curiosity and imagination regarding the narrative.

Epigraphs are less common in academic writing because the goal of the writing is to demonstrate the author’s critical thinking on a topic using an evidence-based, analytical approach. Academic writing connects with readers through demonstrating the author’s critical thinking and understanding, rather than connecting via engaging the readers’ imaginations or interpretations of the material. When taking an evidence-based approach to writing, academic authors typically use quotations as research evidence within a paragraph, and the quotations are accompanied by an explanation of the connection between the quotation and the claim it supports. Since epigraphs are stand-alone quotations at the beginning of the text, readers don’t yet have the necessary information to understand why the quotation is important to the larger discussion presented in the text.

If an author chooses to use an epigraph, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind:

Sourcing the epigraph

If the text is a well-known phrase by an individual, authors must make sure to use a reputable source, such as the published transcript of a speech or something the person in question actually wrote. There are many websites that provide quotations, but contributors may not have checked if the quotation’s wording or attribution is correct. For example, many people credit Mahatma Gandhi with the phrase “be the change you wish to see in the world”, yet he never actually said the phrase (Morton, 2011). Therefore, please avoid websites that compile quotations; instead, go to a reputable source for the quotation.

Formatting and citing the epigraph

If the rest of the document is formatted according to the APA Style rules, so too must the epigraph be correctly formatted. The quotation should be formatted like a block quotation (Hume-Pratuch, 2013, para. 3) with the double-spaced text indented from the left margin and no quotation marks. Also, the text should be in the same font as the rest of the work and should not be italicized. Finally,

on the line below the end of the epigraph, the author’s name (and only the author’s last name if he or she is well-known) and the source’s title should be given. This credit line should be flush right, preceded by an em dash. An epigraph’s source is not listed in the References section. (para. 3).

For example:

 

If the source of the epigraph is “a scholarly book or journal and a quotation used by permission” (Hume-Pratuch, 2013, para. 4), the citation takes a different form: “cite the author, year, and page number at the end of the epigraph, in parentheses with no period—just as you would for a block quote. The source should be listed in the References section” (para. 4). For example:

 

For more information on formatting epigraphs according to the APA Style rules, please visit “How to Format an Epigraph” in the APA Style Blog.

Do you have questions about this tip or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we would be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing Centre manager

(Originally published in Crossroads January 25, 2017)

References

Hume-Pratuch, J. (2013, October 10). How to format an epigraph? [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2013/10/how-to-format-an-epigraph.html

Morton, B. (2011, August 30). Falser words were never spoken. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished
it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and
logically perceive what it is that you really want to say. —Mark Twain, Notebook, 1902–1903

A quote used to introduce an article, paper, or chapter is called an epigraph. It often serves as a summary or counterpoint to the passage that follows, although it may simply set the stage for it.


The Publication Manual doesn’t specifically address the topic of epigraphs, but we thought it might be helpful for you to know the rules we follow in formatting epigraphs for APA journals.


The text of the epigraph is indented from the left margin in the same way as a block quote. On the line below the end of the epigraph, the author’s name (and only the author’s last name if he or she is well-known) and the source’s title should be given. This credit line should be flush right, preceded by an em dash. An epigraph’s source is not listed in the References section.


Exceptions to this are an epigraph from a scholarly book or journal and a quotation used by permission. In these cases, cite the author, year, and page number at the end of the epigraph, in parentheses with no period—just as you would for a block quote. The source should be listed in the References section.

Emotion is one of the most complex phenomena known to psychology.
It is complex because it involves so much of the organism at so
many levels of . . . integration. . . . Perhaps therein lies the
uniqueness, and the major significance, of emotion. (Lindsley,
1951, p. 473)


The epigraph should not be confused with the similar-sounding epigram (a brief, pointed, and often satirical text or poem) and epitaph (a short text honoring the deceased). Sometimes, however, the three categories coincide in a quotable hat trick:


     Go tell the Spartans, you who pass us by,
     That here obedient to their laws we lie.
        —Simonides, Inscription at Thermopylae

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