What is MLA?
MLA stands for the Modern Language Association. This group establishes the standards and conventions which determine how papers in MLA style look and how sources are cited when used in papers in this style. All of the latest information about MLA style and citations can be found in the MLA Handbook, Eighth Edition. Various cites on the internet also have information about MLA–be sure, though, that what you are looking at references the eighth edition and not an earlier version.
When do I use MLA?
MLA is generally used in the following disciplines: Communication, Humanities, Literature, Religion, and Theatre. Many times instructors who are teaching classes in Fine Arts, Liberal Arts, or Philosophy also require students to use MLA. They, may, however, ask that students use APA, Chicago style, or another style used by their discipline. Often, this depends on the structure of the particular college and what division or school these classes are considered to be a part of as well as the preferences of instructors teaching the classes.
Unless your instructor specifically states otherwise, MLA is not to be used in hard sciences (Chemistry, Biology, Physics, etc.) Computer Science, Criminology, Education, Journalism, Mathematics, Political Science, Psychology, or Sociology.
If your instructor hasn’t stated in the assignment guidelines or the course outline/syllabus which style you should be using, make sure you check with them before writing your paper.
When do I need to cite a source?
Any time that you have ideas or words from a source which aren’t yours, you need to cite where they came from. If you use a direct quotation from a source (meaning what appears in your paper is exactly the same as the original source), you need to cite it. If you paraphrase (so some of the words are yours, some come from the source, but the ideas are all from the source), you need to cite it. If you have summarized information from the source (the words are all yours, but the ideas are from the source), you still need to cite it.
If you aren’t sure whether or not to cite something, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
Did I know this before I read the sources for my paper or before I started this project?
Is this a general fact that most people accept to be true and would just know without doing any specialized reading or research to know it? (ex. Abraham Lincoln was once the president of the United States.)
Did this idea originate in my head?
If the answer to any of these is no, then you need a citation. If you knew something before you started this project, you still may need to cite it. If it’s not common knowledge (a general fact like the statement about Lincoln) and/or it’s not your original idea, then you still should acknowledge where you obtained that idea from. A good rule to follow is that if you’re unsure, it’s better to cite when you don’t need to than to not cite something when you should have. Remember, if you have particular questions about this, your instructor or the staff in the WC can help you with this. Here’s a handy flow chart to help if we aren’t available:
What does MLA citation consist of?
MLA requires that you have three parts to your citations.
- A lead in or signal phrase before your cited information which signals to the reader that what follows are not your words or ideas. Usually, the first time you cite a source, you will list the author and title of the source in this phrase. Sometimes, it’s also helpful to include a piece of information which establishes the author’s credibility. After the first time you reference a source, you still need a lead in phrase, but you can use either the author’s last name only or the title of the source. Here’s an example of a lead in phrase: “In Why Lead In Phrases are Important, Cynthia Jones argues that…” This clearly lets your reader know that what follows are the ideas of Jones and from which source on the works cited list those ideas are found in.
- A parenthetical reference, when appropriate, at the end of your passage of cited information. Note that this occurs at the end of the particular passage you’re citing, not at the end of each sentence in that passage. The standard format for parenthetical references in MLA is to use the author’s last name and the page number or range of pages where the specific information in this citation is found. So, for example, if we are looking at Jones’ book and citing something from page six, our parenthetical reference would look like this: (Jones 6). There are a couple of exceptions to this. If we have used Jones’ name in the lead in (as in the example above), then we just use the page number. Our parenthetical reference then looks like this: (6). The second exception is if we are looking at a digital source which is not a PDF file. If that’s the case, then we don’t use any page numbers. So, if our lead in does not contain the author’s name, we have to put it in parentheses at the end like this: (Jones). But, if we’ve used it in the lead in, and there are no page numbers available, then we simply don’t use a parenthetical reference at that point in the draft.
- An alphabetized list at the end of your document known as a “Works Cited” page which lists all of your sources and their publication information. The works cited page starts on a new page of its own. The title “Works Cited” is centered on the first line at the top margin of that page. Sources are listed alphabetically according to the author or editor’s last name, or according to the first piece of information in your citation if no author or editor is given. Entries are formatted using what is known as “hanging indentation.” This means the first line of each entry starts at the left margin, and each line after that is indented one tab. Each citation for your source should contain all of the available information from the list below.
What information will I need from my sources in order to cite them?
MLA asks that you cite the traits shared by most works. This means that whenever you use a source, you are going to have to know certain things about the publishing of that source in order to cite it correctly in your paper. You should always make sure that you know this information for each of your sources, even if you aren’t sure yet whether or not you are going to use the source in your paper. If you are using a library database or the internet to find sources, make sure you have all of this information recorded someplace you will keep track of it before navigating away from the source to look at something else. Don’t assume that it will be on a copy you printed or emailed to yourself to read later or that you will easily find your way back to where you are now to find the information later.
Here are the core elements you will need to know about any source you site:
- First and last name of author (s)
- Title of source
- Title of container (title of magazine or newspaper, website, database, streaming service, etc. where the source is housed)
- Other significant contributors (editors, translators, directors, actors, etc.)
- Name of Publisher
- Publication Date and Date you Accessed Information for digital sources
- Location (page numbers for print sources and URLs or DOIs for digital sources)
What if I can’t find all of that information?
Okay, well, a few things might be going on here. One is that some of these elements don’t always apply to every source. For example, if you are looking at a hard copy book, then you aren’t going to have a container name because the book title is both the title of the source and the title of the container. It doesn’t exist as a part of something larger. Does that make sense? Also, not all articles that you find in a database are going to have a DOI listed (although if they do, you should use this instead of the URL).
Secondly, that information may not be available. If there’s no author listed, then of course, you can’t provide that. (However, if there are several elements not available, then you really need to question whether or not you should be using this source in an academic paper.) Finally, the information is out there, you just don’t know where to look for it. If that’s the case, then you have an obligation to provide it. As an ethical scholar, researcher, and writer, you have to provide accurate and complete information to your readers about your sources. You can’t just skip it. If you’re having problems locating information or knowing if what you’ve found is the right information to cite your sources, talk to your instructor, the writing center staff, or one of the librarians at the DACC library for help.
How do I punctuate between the elements in my works cited entries?
Isn’t there just a program that will do all of this for me?
Uhm…yes, and no.
As a DACC student, you have access to Noodle Tools which, among other things, is a citation creator. You can use your account to store research information, help you organize notes, create an outline for your paper, and help you create your citations which can be exported to a word document for your works cited list. However, you need to realize that it is just a computer program which assists you with these tasks. You still need to be able to know what type of source you are looking at in order to tell it which type of citation to create and you need to be able to locate all of the elements for the citation so that you can give it the correct information.
You can access Noodle Tools here: http://dacc.libguides.com/noodletools. If you are working off campus or using your personal computer while at DACC and haven’t used Noodle Tools before, you will need to contact the DACC Library staff to get the log in information. You should not have to do this if you are using a DACC computer on campus. You can contact them at 443-8739 or firstname.lastname@example.org.