What are MLA citations? Learn how to use this common citation method to cite your sources in your academic writing properly.
The MLA style guide is the most common style guide used within language arts, cultural studies, and humanities writing. MLA citations are citations that follow the Modern Language Association style guide and give writers the ability to credit the source of the ideas they use in their work.
MLA citations use a combination of parenthetical citations and a list of references at the end of the paper to show the reader where the ideas came from. The parenthetical citations follow a specific format, listing the author and the page number. Readers can then look to the references list, called the Works Cited page, to find the exact reference for fact-checking and verification purposes.
What Are MLA Citations?
MLA stands for Modern Language Association. It publishes a style guide known as the MLA Handbook that writers can use in their academic and professional writing. MLA citations come from the most recent edition of the MLA and allow writers to credit the original author for any ideas they use in their writing.
MLA citations are essential because they allow writers to avoid the dangers of plagiarism. Without these citations, writers can be guilty of this unethical action.
When to Use MLA Citations?
Writers will use MLA citations in any research paper or essay with the MLA Handbook as the essential guide. Writers need to use citations for both paraphrased and quoted references. In addition, any thought that is not generally common knowledge for the intended audience and came from a resource requires a citation.
In-Text Citations in the MLA Style
According to the MLA Handbook, parenthetical citations are the proper way to reference the works of other writers within an essay or research paper. In most instances, the writer will place the parenthesis with the reference source information at the end of the sentence where that information shows up, just before the period.
The MLA format uses the author-page number format for references. Here are some examples of how this might appear in your piece:
1. A Work with a Known Author
If a work has a known author, you will list their last name and the page number in the parenthesis. If you do not list the author in the piece directly, you will place the last name and page number, without a comma, in parenthesis before the period at the end of the sentence. For example:
- The Romantic era of literature is commonly noted for the rich feeling and emotion of the works (Smith 382).
- According to Smith, the Romantic era of literature is noted for the rich feeling and emotion of the works (382).
This information will match one of the entries on the Works Cited page at the end of the piece.
If there are citations from authors with the same last name, include the first initial in the citation to differentiate between them. For example:
- The Romantic era of literature is commonly noted for the rich feeling and emotion of the works (J. Smith 382).
2. A Work With a Corporate Author
Sometimes you will use sources that do not have known authors. If the piece has a corporation or company as the author, such as a website or a magazine, you can use that. For example:
- Many ancient Aztec artifacts were found at the dig (nat’l geographic 39).
3. A Work Without Page Numbers or an Author
If a source does not have a page number or author, you will need to choose something that will indicate which source it connects to on the works cited page. This is often a shortened version of the title. For instance:
- Global warming is a problem in North America because of high pollution levels (“Global Warming in America”)
In this instance, “Global Warming in America” is the title of a journal, magazine article, or website where the original information came from. The reader can look at the Works Cited page to learn more details.
4. A Work with More Than One Author
You will use both last names in the parenthetical citation for works with two authors. For instance:
- Edgar Allan Poe is one of the best macabre poets in American literature (Smith and Jones 32).
However, if the work has more than two authors, you will use the first author’s last name and the words “et al.” Here is an example:
- Edgar Allan Poe is one of the best macabre poets in American literature (Smith et al. 32).
5. Multiple Works by the Same Author
If you have multiple works by the same author in your piece, then include a shortened version of the title in the parenthesis in between the last name and the page number. Place a comma after the last name. For example:
- Elementary education remains a top choice for incoming first-year college students (Smith, “Freshman Choices” 83).
In MLA, quotations are handled the same way that summaries are, but you add quotation marks around the quote or set it apart with block formatting if it is a long quote. Add the parenthetical citation after the quotation mark, before the period in a short quote, and after the period at the end of the text block for long quotes.
The MLA Works Cited Page
At the end of your paper, you will place a Works Cited page with a list of the references you used. Each in-text citation must match one of the references on this page. Each type of reference you use has a specific format to follow.
Books and Printed Reference Materials
For books, follow this basic format:
- Last Name, First Name. Title of Book. City of Publication, Publisher, Publication Date.
If the book has two authors, follow this format:
- Last Name, First Name, and First Name Last Name. Title of Book. City of Publication, Publisher, Publication Date.
For books with three or more authors, follow this format:
- Last Name, First Name, et al. Title of Book. City of Publication, Publisher, Publication Date.
If you have multiple books by the same author, place the second reference under the first one, but in place of the author’s name, use three hyphens and a period.
Newspaper and Magazine Articles
If you use a periodical, newspaper, or magazine article in your references, use this basic structure:
- Author. Title. Title of container (self contained if book), Other contributors (translators or editors), Version (edition), Number (vol. and/or no.), Publisher, Publisher Date, Location (pp.). 2nd container’s title, Other contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Pub date, Location (pp.).
This looks lengthy, but it gives every possible detail you could have for your source. Whatever information does not apply or is not available, simply skip it and leave it out completely. So, for a simple magazine article, it might look like this:
- Author(s). “Title of Article.” Title of Periodical, Day Month Year, pages.
For an article in a scholarly journal, you may write:
- Author(s). “Title of Article.” Title of Journal, Volume, Issue, Year, pages.
You have a similar basic format for electronic sources, such as websites. But, again, if the information is not available or does not apply to your source, omit it:
- Author or compiler name (if available). Name of Site. Version number (if available), Name of institution/organization affiliated with the site (sponsor or publisher), date of resource creation (if available), DOI (preferred). Otherwise, include a URL or permalink—date of access (if applicable).
Because online citations are constantly changing, writers should always check with the most recent MLA version to ensure they cite correctly. They also should ask their teacher what formatting is necessary when writing papers for school.
For more help, check out our round-up of the best citation software.
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