Tables and figures can add depth and clarity to your writing. But your readers may be confused or distracted if visual content suddenly appears in your document without an explanation. Avoid surprising your readers by following these five guidelines for how to reference tables and figures in text.
Before we begin, let’s define tables and figures.
What Are Tables and Figures?
The definition of tables is quite narrow: tables are collections of data arranged in rows and columns.
But figures have a much broader scope. In fact, figures can be any of the following:
- illustrations (e.g., line drawings, sketches, diagrams)
- artwork (e.g., copies of paintings, etchings, woodcuts)
- charts and graphs (e.g., pie charts, bar graphs, scatter plots)
*Some publishers don’t use the term figure for maps.1
Now let’s look at the guidelines for referencing tables and figures in text.
1. Refer to Tables and Figures before They Appear in Your Document
Traditionally, tables and figures should be mentioned in a sentence before they appear in the document. This first reference is important because it helps your readers understand the connection between the tables and figures with the rest of the text.
You can also refer to tables and figures again after they appear in the document, if necessary.
2. Consult Your Style Guide before Capitalizing the Words Table and Figure
The words table and figure are always capitalized in labels. However, our primary style guides conflict on when we should capitalize table and figure in references within sentences.
The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago Style) and the Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook (MLA style) recommend lowercasing the words table and figure within in-sentence references (unless those words appear at the start of a sentence, of course).2
As shown in figure 12, widget sales have increased by 500% over the last five years.
Conversely, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) and the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style (AMA style) recommend capitalizing the words table and figure in references within sentences.3
BigCorp’s products are listed in Table 5 along with pricing, accessories, and delivery options.
If you don’t adhere to a specific guide, choose the style that is most common in your industry or the style you believe will best serve your readers.
3. Include Parenthetical References within Sentences
Parenthetical references to figures and tables should be placed within the related sentence, not as a standalone sentence within parentheses.
Attach the metal legs to the underside of the tabletop (see figure 8).
The boarding facility records each pet’s favorite foods and toys (see table 10) as well as illnesses and medications (see table 11).
Capitalization of the words table and figure within parenthetical references will depend on your style guide, as explained in section 2 above.
4. Use Numerals for Table and Figure Numbers
The identification numbers for tables and figures (e.g., table 2, figure 14) should be written as numerals within sentences even if your style guide normally recommends spelling out that number because it falls below ten or 100.
Number sequencing is separate for tables and figures, so you can have a table 1 and a figure 1.
Recommended Reading: Three Tips for Starting a Sentence with a Number
5. Use Caution When Abbreviating the Word Figure
The guidelines vary for abbreviating the word figure as fig., so proceed carefully if you want to use the abbreviation.
The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style) says that the abbreviation fig. can be used—but only in parenthetical references.4
The artist’s focus shifted perspective in the 1930s (see fig. 5).
The Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook (MLA style) prefers the abbreviation fig. in all instances.5 Note that MLA style favors parenthetical references over those integrated directly into sentences (e.g., “As shown in fig. 44, polydactyl cats have six toes”).6
Scientists have discovered a new plant species in the Midwest (see fig. 7).
The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) and the AMA Manual of Style (AMA style) both appear to be silent on the issue of abbreviating the word figure, so you can safely assume that you should spell out—and capitalize—the word figure in all references if you follow either of those guides.7
Insert the wooden dowel into part B (see Figure 23).
If you aren’t sure which style guide to follow, I always suggest Chicago style for general writing and business writing. You can learn more about the differences between our primary style guides in my blog post “Which Style Guide Is Best for You?”
Regardless of which guideline you prefer for referencing tables and figures, be sure to maintain a consistent style throughout your document.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 3.5.
- “Tables and Illustrations,” Formatting a Research Paper, The MLA Style Center, accessed March 5, 2019, https://style.mla.org/formatting-papers/#tablesandillustrations; The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 3.9, 3.50.
- AMA Manual of Style, 10th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 378; Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association), 130, 150–51.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 3.9.
- Sample Papers in MLA Style, accessed March 5, 2019, https://style.mla.org/sample-papers/. See the second example paper titled “Second-year course in African American Studies”; “Tables and Illustrations,” Formatting a Research Paper, The MLA Style Center, accessed March 5, 2019, https://style.mla.org/formatting-papers/#tablesandillustrations.
- “MLA Tables, Figures, and Examples,” Purdue Online Writing Lab, accessed March 5, 2019, https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/mla_style/mla_formatting_and_style_guide/mla_tables_figures_and_examples.html.
- AMA Manual of Style, 10th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 81–122; Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association), 130, 150–51.