Writing tip: Common knowledge

Theresa Bell

Common knowledge is a term used to describe information that is “factual, not mere opinion; it is well-established in the community in which it is used; and it is supported by evidence” (McAdoo, 2013, para. 16). Due to the general acceptance of the information, common knowledge isn’t cited in academic work.

The tricky thing about common knowledge is that authors need to consider what information they can assume their audiences will accept as general truths. For example, young earth creationists and evolutionists have widely differing views on the origins of humans and the age of the earth, and using the criteria provided above, both groups would consider their points of view to be common knowledge. If an author published a work to members of the community who share the author’s views, citations wouldn’t be required; however, should the author publish outside of that community, both groups would demand citations of evidence. Similarly, employees of a company would likely consider information about the company to be common knowledge, so they wouldn’t cite sources in an internal document. However, a document intended for a broader audience may include citations to connect readers to supporting evidence that demonstrates the truth of the information.

When writing for an academic audience, please err on the side of caution; that is, if you’re questioning whether your audience will accept information in your work as a general truth, try to find a source that verifies the information and that you can cite in your work.

For more information regarding common knowledge, please refer to “Not-So-Common Knowledge” (Princeton University), and for a humorous take on the topic, see “The First Thanksgiving: A Tale of Common Knowledge” in the APA Style Blog.

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

Theresa Bell
Writing Centre manager


McAdoo, T. (2013, November 27). The first Thanksgiving: A tale of common knowledge [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2013/11/the-first-thanksgiving-a-tale-of-common-knowledge.html