MLA Citation Style: The Basics

All college students, sooner or later, will be required to write an academic paper. Your instructor will hand out an assignment sheet, and one of the requirements will say something like, “Follow MLA format.” What exactly is MLA format, you ask?

MLA stands for “Modern Language Association.” MLA style, according to MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers,  “represents a consensus among teachers, scholars, and librarians in the fields of language and literature on the conventions for documenting research, and those conventions will help you organize your research paper coherently” (xiii). The parenthetical reference you just read following the direct quote is referred to as an in-text citation, which is the page in the aforementioned text where you can find the quote. MLA citation style is generally used in the humanities and liberal arts fields.

According to the editors of the MLA Handbook, MLA published a style sheet in 1951, and since then has been refining the style to help academics and researchers compose their writings and research (xiv). Note that even though the previous sentence is not a direct quote, but paraphrased, it still includes a parenthetical citation. Credit must be given to ALL information taken from any source, or the writer could be accused of plagiarism.

As you compose your research paper, you’ll be asked to include research on your topic. Research might take the form of print sources, such as books, journals, newspapers, or magazines. You may also want to utilize online or web sources, such as an organization’s website, an online magazine or newspaper, or even Wikipedia. If you are not sure what types of research are permitted, ask your instructor.

Types of Sources

A research paper will have two types of sources – primary and secondary. Primary sources are original information from an author who has experienced or witnessed what he or she is writing about. They might include original documents or artifacts. The Diary of Anne Frank would be considered a primary source, as it was written by Anne Frank, who experienced the events.

Secondary sources usually analyze and interprets primary sources.  Secondary sources are not original, and are often several steps removed from the event. A journal article that analyzes someone else’s research is an example of a secondary source. Learning how to locate, analyze, and integrate secondary sources into your writing is one of the most important skills you will learn as you write your research paper. You will need to not only learn how to assess other’s research, but you also must articulate your own ideas clearly. 

In-text Citations

In MLA, any information you take, whether directly quoted or paraphrased, must be cited in the text of your paper immediately after the information in what is known as a parenthetical citation. What goes in this parenthetical citation depends upon the type of source information used. This parenthetical citation must coincide with the Works Cited page, the reference page at the end of your essay. MLA uses what is known as the “author-page” citation,which means you’ll include the author’s last name and the page number where the information came from. If you mention the author in the text, you will omit it from the parenthetical reference.

EX.: Human beings have been described by Kenneth Burke as “symbol-using animals” (3).
Since the author’s name is mentioned in the text, only the page number is given.
Human beings have been described as “symbol-using animals” (Burke 3).
In this example, the author’s name is given in the citation, as it is not mentioned in the text.
Many other sources, though, may not list an author, and most web-based sources list no page number. Refer to the current  MLA Handbook or Purdue Owl for information on different types of citations when lacking an author, page number, or both.
Works Cited
The works cited page is the reference page to your paper. It will alphabetically list every source you used in your paper, both primary and secondary. Your instructor will look at each entry on your works cited, then locate that entry in your paper’s citations. This means that whatever means you have used to list your entry, either the author, title, website, etc., should match the way you have cited it in the text of your essay. MLA requires specific formatting, so always refer to your handbook or visit Purdue Owl to check your entries.
Never Guess
Learning how to locate, analyze, and integrate research into your compositions can be time-consuming and often confusing. You should never guess how to cite a source. Refer to the MLA Handbook or visit Purdue Owl online for any questions you may have on in-text citations or your works cited page.
E. Mack

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