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Academic Coaching & Writing

VI. Using APA Style in Academic Writing: Et Al.

Jan 19, 2015 by Jeff Hume-Pratuch

Sometimes it’s the little things that trip us up. Take the abbreviation et al.: A key part of citations in APA Style, it’s just four letters long, but its misuse can lead to big problems with reviewers.

Et al. is an abbreviation of the Latin term et alia, meaning “and others.” In practical terms, that translates to “and other authors,” as the abbreviation is used to substitute for multiple authors’ names. 

Et al. comes into play in references to works with three or more authors.

When a work has two authors, both names are used every time the work is cited.

When a work has three, four, or five authors, use all the names the first time the work is cited; in subsequent citations, use the first author’s name plus et al.

When a work has six or more authors, use the first author’s name plus et al. on first citation and throughout your paper.

No. of Authors First Citation Subsequent Citations
2 Binkley and Halloway (2012) or
(Binkley & Halloway, 2012)
Binkley and Halloway (2012) or
(Binkley & Halloway, 2012)
3–5 Graff, Walker, and Bernstein (2009) or
(Graff, Walker, & Bernstein, 2009)
Graff et al. (2009) or
(Graff et al., 2009)
6+ Vianna et al. (2006) or
(Vianna et al., 2006)
Vianna et al. (2006) or
(Vianna et al., 2006)

When Citations Are Too Similar

If two works with more than three authors published in the same year would shorten to the same form, cite the first author and as many of the following authors as necessary to distinguish the two. For example, under the rules given above, both Paus, Otaky, Caramanos, and Macdonald (1996) and Paus, d’Avirro, Baker, and Evans (1996) would shorten to Paus et al. (1996). Proceed along the list of authors until you have included enough information to tell them apart. In this case the citations would be Paus, Otaky, et al. (1996) and Paus, d’Avirro, et al. (1996), respectively.

There is a catch here, however. What if the only difference between two works is the final author? Here’s where the Latin meaning of the abbreviation becomes important. Because it means “and others,” et al. can only be used to replace two or more names in a citation. If you are citing both Peng, Liu, Nie, Shan, and Wang (2011) and Peng, Liu, Nie, Shan, and Li (2011), just one name makes the difference. Thus, the only way to distinguish them is to provide all the author names in every citation of these two sources.

Using Et Al. in the Reference List

In the fifth and earlier editions, the APA Publication Manual specified the use of et al. to shorten lengthy author lists in the references as well as in text citations. This rule has been changed in the sixth edition. When there are eight or more authors, APA Style now uses an ellipsis after the sixth author’s name, followed by the name of the last author. 

However, there is one case in which et al. is used in a reference entry. Major reference works (encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.) often have very large editorial boards, which would make for an unwieldy reference. In this case, the name of the lead editor should be listed, followed by et al. The APA Publication Manual does not define a precise number of editors required to qualify as a “large” editorial board, but it would seem reasonable to use this method for a panel of eight or more.

As you read these blogs, other questions about APA Style may occur to you. Please share them with us so we can address them in future ACW blogs.

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