MLA Style

Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate reasons for the use of MLA formatting and documentation

Why Cite?

You will recall from the previous reading that citing is important because:

  • citations help others find the information you used in your research paper
  • citing your sources accurately helps establish the credibility of your research
  • citations connect your work to the work of other scholars
  • citations are one way that scholars enter into a dialogue with one another
  • citations are a way to honor and acknowledge the work of others who have made your own research possible

MLA Style

MLA style is one of the most common citation and formatting styles you will encounter in your academic career. The MLA, which stands for Modern Language Association, is an organization of language scholars and experts. MLA format is typically used for writing in the humanities and is widely used in many high school and introductory college English classes, as well as scholarly books and professional journals. If you are writing a paper for a literature or media studies class, it is likely your professor will ask you to write in MLA style.

Citation Resources

There are many fantastic resources out there that can make the formatting and citation process easier. Some common style guides include the following:

  • The Purdue Online Writing Lab: this is a popular resource that concisely explains how to properly format and cite in various academic styles.
  • EasyBib: in addition to having a style guide, this website allows you to paste in information from your research and will create and save citations for you.

Reference management websites and applications can also assist you in tracking and recording your research. Most of these websites will even create the works cited page for you! Some of the most popular citation tools include the following:

Understanding Citations

Online tools that generate citations for you can be wonderful—they save time and allow you to focus on the knowledge work of writing a paper. No one expects you to memorize exactly how each different type of text is formatted in MLA style. All of us turn to citation generators, the MLA Handbook, or online resources to remind ourselves of the minutiae of citations. But you do need to have some overall familiarity with the format so that you know what information you need to include and so that you can quickly and easily recognize the mistakes that citation generators (computers!) make. Understanding why citations are built the way they are can help you be more critical in your proofreading of generated works cited pages and internal citations.

Let’s think about this example citation from a student paper:

  • Damiani, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jesse-damiani/every-time-you-say-all-li_1_b_11004780.html

What is wrong with this citation? The student provides a URL but does not use MLA format on their works cited page. By using just a URL, the student not only diverges from normal discourse conventions but omits the critical information the reader expects to see such as the date of publication (the author and title of the article are awkwardly embedded in the URL).

An incorrect citation is bad form – think about it as the equivalent of being rude to your reader. Good form (good use of MLA format) makes life easier for your reader and makes you look more accomplished, professional, and credible as a writer.

Try It

Documenting Sources

Let’s return to our example of Marvin. He’s already learned from the online professor about walking, talking, and cooking with his sources. Now the professor reminds Marvin about one more important step for utilizing sources in his research.

O-Prof: In college writing, if you use a source in a paper, you’re expected to let the reader know exactly how to find that source as well. Providing this “source address” information for your sources is known as documenting your sources.

Marvin: What do you mean by a “source address”?

O-Prof: It’s directions for finding the source. A mailing address tells you how to find a person: the house number, street, city, state, and zip code. To help your readers find your sources, it’s customary to give them the name of the author; the title of the book or article or website; and other information such as date, location of publication, publisher, even the database in which a source is located. Or, if it’s a website, you might give the name of the site and/or the date on which you accessed it. Source documentation can be complicated because the necessary source address information differs for different types of sources (e.g., books vs. journal articles, electronic vs. print). Additionally, different disciplines (e.g., history, philosophy, psychology, literature, etc.) use different “address” formats. Eventually, you’ll become familiar with the documentation conventions for your own academic major, but source documentation takes a lot of practice. In the meantime, your teachers and various writing handbooks can provide instructions on what information you’ll need.

Marvin: Do I really need to include all that information? A lot of times, the sources I use are readings my teachers have assigned, so they already know where to find them.

O-Prof: Your teachers don’t always know where all your sources are from, and they also want you to get into the habit of source documentation. And what about your other readers? If they’re deeply interested in your topic, they may want to find more information than you’ve included in your paper. Your source documentation allows them to find the original source. And there are other reasons for documenting sources. It can help readers understand your own position on a topic because they can see which authors you agree with and which you don’t. It also shows readers you’ve taken time to investigate your topic and aren’t just writing off the top of your head. If readers see that your ideas are based on trustworthy sources, they’re more likely to trust what you say.

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