How to Use Zotero to Properly Cite Grammars in SBL Style

You might think that citing a grammar according to the SBL Handbook of Style would be pretty straightforward.1 And you’d be right, but there are several special cases to account for.

1. Cite section numbers wherever possible.

Instead of citing a grammar by page number, you should cite by section number wherever possible to give the most precise reference. You’ll designate a single section with “§” and a section range with “§§”.

2. Cite grammars by abbreviation where applicable.

For many common Hebrew and Greek grammars, the SBL Handbook specifies an abbreviation by which to cite a given grammar (§8.4). You may find others also when you check IATG3.

For instance, Gesenius-Kautzch-Cowley is cited simply by the abbreviation “GKC”. Blass-Debrunner-Funk is cited simply as “BDF”.2

The full bibliographic information for these sources then goes in an abbreviations list and should not appear in the bibliography.

3. Adjust your reference manager’s output accordingly.

If you use reference manager software, you’ll want to consider how best to get that software to produce the abbreviated references you need for cases like this. If you use Zotero, you have two main options.

a. Enter footnotes manually, or use the prefix and suffix fields.

If you need to cite only one or more grammars only by an abbreviation(s), you can simply add a footnote and type the appropriate text without going through Zotero’s “add citation” process.

If you are citing a grammar(s) and another source(s) in a Zotero footnote, you can simply add the appropriate grammar citation text to the prefix or suffix fields of your existing citation, depending on whether you want the grammar citation to come before or after the other source(s) you are citing.

So, for instance, when adding or editing a citation, you could type “BDF §458;” into the prefix field to add a citation to Blass-Debrunner-Funk §458. Zotero would then build this text into the footnote so that the footnote will look as it should.

The upside of this method is that it is quite straightforward. The downside is that any sources you cite in this way won’t appear in any bibliography Zotero generates for your document.

SBL Press doesn’t want sources cited by abbreviation in a bibliography anyhow, but in some cases, you might find that you want this (e.g., requirements from a professor, journal, or volume editor).

In that event, your best option will be to edit the bibliography that Zotero prepares to add any sources you’ve included in your footnotes simply by adding their abbreviations as text. Since you entered those citations simply as text, Zotero won’t “know” to add these sources to your bibliography unless you make those changes directly.

b. Install the current SBL style in your reference manager.

Other ways of getting this output automatically from Zotero may be on the horizon. But things are really quite easy if you have the current version of the SBL style installed.

Not long ago, you would have needed to install a custom variant of the main SBL style or edit the style yourself. That’s no longer necessary, however. The changes necessary to cite grammars and other sources by abbreviation are now part of the main SBL style.

You can get the style from the Zotero repository directly. Or if you drop your name and email in the form below, I’ll drop you an email about that style. I’ll also include the style for the Catholic Biblical Association, which uses many of the same abbreviations as SBL style.

Once you have the style installed, for any source you need to cite by an abbrevation, just add Annote: [abbreviation] in that Zotero resource’s “Extra” field. So, for instance, for Blass-Debrunner-Funk, you would add Annote: BDF.

The upside of this method is that you can cite grammars by abbreviation while using the Zotero add citation dialog.

The downside is that you might need to edit your bibliography, if you have one, to remove these sources and move them to an abbreviation list (per SBL style’s requirement).

But you will probably know pretty well which few sources are cited by abbreviations. So, you should be able to edit your bibliography as needed pretty quickly to relocate these sources.


In the end, citing grammars according to the SBL Handbook of Style is quite straightforward.

If you want to cite them while using a reference manager, the process may be a bit more detailed to set up since the manager may not have a mechanism for handling largely custom citation patterns like the abbreviations SBL Press specifies for common grammars.

But with some careful thought about how you want to approach citing these kinds of resources, you can certainly streamline them into your existing citation process.

  1. Header image provided by SBL Press

  2. Also important is SBL Press’s discussion of citing Herbert Smyth’s Greek Grammar

Focus on Writing While Zotero Does Even More Formatting

Zotero is a free tool for managing bibliographies and citations.1 It’s now even more useful for researchers in biblical studies.

That’s particularly true if you’re using the styles for either the Catholic Biblical Association (CBA) or the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL).

Catholic Biblical Association

The style for the CBA is what you’ll see if you read a Catholic Biblical Quarterly article.

Zotero has supported CBA style for some time. But per CBA’s current guidelines, the style now

  • Supports custom citations specified by CBA and stored in Extra via the annote variable (e.g., annote: BDF),
  • Allows series abbreviations to be stored in Extra via the collection-title-short variable (e.g., collection-title-short: NIGTC),
  • Truncates page ranges per the guidance of the Chicago Manual of Style (e.g., 115-116 becomes 115-16),2
  • Capitalizes English titles stored in sentence or lower case in “headline” style,
  • Gives citations with a “sub verbo” locator the “s.v.” notation and those with a “section” locator the § symbol,3
  • Overrides Chicago’s en dash with a hyphen when delimiting page ranges, and
  • Includes a period at the end of a citation.

The updated style now also corrects a few bugs in the prior version. These include

  • Correcting the output of a work cited with only editors as responsible parties from “, ed. [name(s)]” to “[name], ed.” or “[names], eds.”,
  • Correcting the delimitation and spacing with volume-page citations (e.g., “1:105”), and
  • Lowercasing “rev. ed.” and, if it appears other than at the start of a sentence, “ibid.”

Society of Biblical Literature

Like CBA, SBL style requires you to cite a number of resources by specific abbreviations.

I’ve previously discussed how you could modify the SBL style in order to store and cite by these abbreviations. That was pretty messy, but you could install a customized style file where I’d already made that change.

That worked, but it meant that you didn’t receive updates as quickly. It also meant that I had to keep re-producing the modified style every time an update came out. Or neither you nor I would benefit from the corrections that that update included.

Now, however, annote-based citations are supported in the SBL style that’s in the Zotero repository.

In addition, for some time, citations with section locators have had a space after § or §§ that shouldn’t have been there (thus, e.g., “§ 105” rather than “§105”). That’s now fixed too.

So, if you cite a grammar, you can just choose “section” as the locator type. You don’t any longer need to drop in § or §§ as the first characters in the locator field.

Just choose a “section” locator, and enter the sections you’re citing. Zotero will take care of the rest.((These comments pertain to the note-bibliography version of Zotero’s SBL style. If you use the parenthetical citation-reference list version, the behavior may differ.)


Citing sources is important work. And no matter how good software gets, you still have to know the style you’re writing in because you’re responsible for the final product.

That responsibility doesn’t shift when it’s challenging. But that doesn’t mean you have to do everything by hand.

Careful use of tools like Zotero will go a long way in helping you keep your citations in order while also clearing your way to focus on the substance of your research and writing.

  1. Header image provided by Zotero via Twitter

  2. If you specify the locator type as “section” rather than “page,” however, Chicago-style truncation doesn’t currently happen. 

  3. The style should be able to output § when you cite only one section and §§ when you cite multiple sections. But it currently uses § even when you cite multiple sections. 

Why You Need to Ship for Feedback after Distribution

The only way to know whether you research is publishable is to ship it.1

You can and should ship for feedback. And good shipping for distribution is still shipping for feedback.

That’s true before publication because it will help turn any “no’s” you receive into improvements in your research.

But even after publication, the best shipping for distribution still includes an openness to feedback.

Shipping for Feedback after Publication

After a piece has been published, responses might be positive, or they might be negative. Often, they’ll be some of both.

But you’re shortchanging yourself if you only consider either the positive or the negative responses.

The positive ones are most encouraging. You need that. The negative ones are probably be most educational. You need that too.

Just like when you ship for feedback to improve your work before seeking publication, it’s nice when critical responses aren’t trolling. But even when they are, it’s possible to read past that.

And the more you open yourself to look past the emotions bound up with having your work critiqued, the more you’ll be able to learn from those reviews and use them well.

Your openness to feedback even after publishing might even give you new ideas or help you produce better work in the future.

An Example of Using Feedback after Publication

One example is Tom Wright’s Justification.2 In that book, he’s responding primarily to John Piper’s Future of Justification, whose subtitle makes its critical stance fairly apparent, A Response to N. T. Wright.3

But Justification doesn’t just restate arguments Wright had previously made. It includes some distinct, new approaches to the debate about justification in Paul.

Justification shows an openness to provocation, an openness to critique, that leads to adaptation and attempts at refinement.

You might fall on either side of this debate between Wright and Piper, or you might take the choice for “none of the above.”

But in any of these cases, Wright’s Justification provides a helpful example of the kind of adaptability that can and should go along with shipping, even when you’re shipping for distribution.

A Concluding Encouragement

So, there are two ways to ship your work. You can ship it for feedback. Or you can ship it for distribution.

But even when you ship for distribution, shipping well means being open to feedback you might receive, whether before or after publication.

Shipping for feedback is primary. Yet that shouldn’t be the only shipping you ever do.

By continuously shipping only for feedback, you avoid shipping something for distribution that isn’t entirely perfect. But you also miss out on actually contributing to the discussion.

Shipping only for feedback doesn’t allow you to help the who that your research is really for in the first place.4

So, don’t get stuck. Work, write, rewrite, revise, and ship—ship both for feedback and for distribution—recalibrate and revise where necessary, and ship again.

  1. Header image provided by Bench Accounting

  2. N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009). Since its initial publication, the volume has also been re-released with an updated introduction (2016). 

  3. John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007). 

  4. For a similar point, see Stanley E. Porter, Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 160–162. For the principle of the priority of who over what, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64. 

How to Ship Your Research for Distribution

You have to ship your research in order to find out whether it’s publishable.1

You can and should ship for feedback. But you also can and should ship for distribution.

Shipping for Distribution

The other way to ship a project is to ship it for distribution. This is “firm shipping” where you’re committing to a particular form of your research that you’re wanting to get to your who.

It’s the kind of shipping you do when you’ve done your due diligence and you’re ready to call the project finished.

Where you ship to for distribution will depend on who you’re trying to reach. Your who might listen to podcasts, attend live talks, read journal articles, or work through monographs.

In each case, you’re going to ship for distribution to the folks who can help you get your research into those different channels, be they podcasters, conference organizers, editorial boards, or acquisition editors.

… and for Feedback

That said, the best shipping for distribution still entails shipping for feedback.

You might not feel the same level of tentativeness you do in shipping your project for feedback.

But whatever you ship isn’t going to be the last word on your topic. So, it’s best to recognize that up front.

Even when your work is “done,” even when you’re shipping for distribution, you’re still able to learn. And your best shipping for distribution will be shipping that’s open to other’s responses, whether positive or negative. It’s a shipping that stays teachable.


This kind of shipping for distribution is hugely advantageous. By contrast, if you ship for distribution without openness and teachability, you’re setting yourself up for a bumpy ride.

The whole point of shipping is that it’s the one thing you can do to test whether your research is, in fact, publishable.

And in that test, the outcome isn’t predetermined. The answer might be “yes,” or it might be “no.”

The “yes” is definitely nicer to hear. But if you’re not open to the value you and your research gets from the reasons for a “no,” you’ll seriously limit where you can find a “yes.”

On the other hand, if you’re shipping for feedback even when you’re shipping for distribution, you’re open to that sort of value. You’re open to continuing to improve your work so that it’s more likely to get a “yes” the next time around.2

  1. Header image provided by Bench Accounting

  2. For discussion of how to turn a “no” to your advantage, see Stanley E. Porter, Inking the Deal: A Guide for Successful Academic Publishing (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 89–102 

How to Ship Your Research for Feedback

To learn whether your work is publishable, there’s no escaping the need to ship it.1

Who your research is for will determine what it means to publish it.2 But even when you have the same who, “shipping” can take either of two primary forms.

These forms depend on your goal in shipping a particular project—in particular, whether you’re shipping (1) for feedback or (2) for distribution.

Shipping for Feedback

One way to ship a project is to ship it for feedback. This is “soft shipping.”

It’s shipping because you’re making your work available to one or more people besides yourself. But it’s “soft” because of the goal you have in shipping.

You’re wanting feedback that you can use to improve your work. In doing so, you’re recognizing, by definition, that the work that you’re shipping isn’t done.

So, there’s some additional tentativeness in shipping for feedback that isn’t as present when you’re shipping for distribution.

Some good examples of shipping for feedback include, if you’re a student, submitting your work to your professor. It can also include things like

  • sending your work to peers for an informal review or
  • presenting your work at conferences where there’s opportunity for feedback to you from a respondent, an audience, or both.

Feedback from Whom?

The key is that you ideally want to ship for feedback to folks who have a few specific characteristics, like

  • Knowledgeability. They don’t have to be an expert in your particular topic. But they have to have enough related knowledge to provide feedback.
  • Execution. If someone agrees to give you feedback or attends a conference session you’re presenting in, it’s best if they actually convey their feedback to you. It doesn’t much help you to improve your work if folks evaluate it but then don’t express their evaluations to you.
  • Honesty. It’s nice to hear your work is great. But that’s not why you ship for feedback. You ship for feedback to get honest input on what you might be missing. So, you need to ship to folks who are willing to tell you that.
  • Good-will. This is a balancing element to honesty. You want folks who will tell you what they honestly think. But you probably aren’t too excited about having your work trolled.


The more of these kinds of characteristics you can find, the better your feedback is likely to be.

At the same time, you might not always be able to find all of these characteristics in folks to whom you might ship for feedback. But even if some are lacking, take that feedback with the corresponding amount of salt, use it for what it’s worth, and keep pressing forward.

  1. Header image provided by Bench Accounting

  2. Here, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64. 

When Do You Need to Wait to Ship?

You want to know whether your research is publishable.1 I’ve suggested the only way to answer this question is to ship the best work you can do and see what happens.

But should you always ship everything when you think it’s ready? Or are there some times when you need to wait to ship?

Start with Who

When deciding what your research should be, you need to start with considering who it’s for.2

The same is true when you’re deciding what it means to publish your research.

And not surprisingly, the same principle applies when you’re contemplating shipping your work.

The key questions are

  1. Is your who a professor in a degree you’re doing? And
  2. Is that degree in any way related to the research you’re considering shipping?

If not, then there’s nothing stopping you from moving ahead. But if so, you’ve got a couple other boxes to check to make sure you ship at the best time.

If You’re a Student …

When writing as a student, there’s at least one special case where you might both have a purple cow and need to wait to ship it.3

Beyond this, there might be more. I think the thoughts I’m sharing here generally apply. But definitely above these, you should prioritize the particular requirements you’re under for your program.

Still, the general principle you want to consider carefully relates to the uniqueness of your future work in your program. That way, you can avoid inadvertently creating difficulties for yourself by publishing your research in certain venues too soon.

A good example is that a PhD thesis or dissertation generally needs to make a unique contribution to scholarship. Sometimes, the same can be true at the masterBut if you’ve already published in a journal a key part of what you were hoping to do for your dissertation, you might find that your institution won’t any longer consider that dissertation to make a unique contribution.

Even though you published the article, the key point may be that you’ve published it. And given that it’s published, it’s out there. Saying the same thing (or something substantially similar) in longer form may mean that that’s no longer unique.

On the other hand, if you publish a key finding when teaching orally in your faith community, it might not raise any eyebrows at all. The who for your dissertation may be sufficiently different from the who for your oral presentation that your dissertation’s who still finds that project to be a unique contribution.


So, as a student, you need to clearly understand what a particular kind of publication might commit you to.

Then, you can decide whether you’re okay with that. Or you can treat what you’ve created as part of a larger research project that you’ll ship once you think the larger whole is clearly purple.

  1. Header image provided by Kai Pilger

  2. Here, I’m particularly playing off of and adapting the discussion of Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 41–64. 

  3. The “purple cow” metaphor I’ve borrowed from Seth Godin, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable (New York: Portfolio, 2003).