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MLA In-Text Citations: The Basics

Summary:

MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities. This resource, updated to reflect the MLA Handbook (8th ed.), offers examples for the general format of MLA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the Works Cited page.

Contributors: Tony Russell, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Russell Keck, Joshua M. Paiz, Michelle Campbell, Rodrigo RodrĂ­guez-Fuentes, Daniel P. Kenzie, Susan Wegener, Maryam Ghafoor, Purdue OWL Staff
Last Edited: 2017-10-23 08:53:38

Guidelines for referring to the works of others in your text using MLA style are covered in chapter 6 of the MLA Handbook and in chapter 7 of the MLA Style Manual. Both books provide extensive examples, so it's a good idea to consult them if you want to become even more familiar with MLA guidelines or if you have a particular reference question.

Basic in-text citation rules

In MLA style, referring to the works of others in your text is done by using what is known as parenthetical citation. This method involves placing relevant source information in parentheses after a quote or a paraphrase.

General Guidelines

  • The source information required in a parenthetical citation depends (1.) upon the source medium (e.g. Print, Web, DVD) and (2.) upon the source’s entry on the Works Cited (bibliography) page.
  • Any source information that you provide in-text must correspond to the source information on the Works Cited page. More specifically, whatever signal word or phrase you provide to your readers in the text, must be the first thing that appears on the left-hand margin of the corresponding entry in the Works Cited List.

In-text citations: Author-page style

MLA format follows the author-page method of in-text citation. This means that the author's last name and the page number(s) from which the quotation or paraphrase is taken must appear in the text, and a complete reference should appear on your Works Cited page. The author's name may appear either in the sentence itself or in parentheses following the quotation or paraphrase, but the page number(s) should always appear in the parentheses, not in the text of your sentence. For example:

Wordsworth stated that Romantic poetry was marked by a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (263).

Romantic poetry is characterized by the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Wordsworth 263).

Wordsworth extensively explored the role of emotion in the creative process (263).

Both citations in the examples above, (263) and (Wordsworth 263), tell readers that the information in the sentence can be located on page 263 of a work by an author named Wordsworth. If readers want more information about this source, they can turn to the Works Cited page, where, under the name of Wordsworth, they would find the following information:

Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Oxford UP, 1967.

In-text citations for print sources with known author

For Print sources like books, magazines, scholarly journal articles, and newspapers, provide a signal word or phrase (usually the author’s last name) and a page number. If you provide the signal word/phrase in the sentence, you do not need to include it in the parenthetical citation.

Human beings have been described by Kenneth Burke as "symbol-using animals" (3).

Human beings have been described as "symbol-using animals" (Burke 3).

These examples must correspond to an entry that begins with Burke, which will be the first thing that appears on the left-hand margin of an entry in the Works Cited:

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.

In-text citations for print sources by a corporate author

When a source has a corporate author, it is acceptable to use the name of the corporation followed by the page number for the in-text citation. You should also use abbreviations (e.g., nat'l for national) where appropriate, so as to avoid interrupting the flow of reading with overly long parenthetical citations.

In-text citations for print sources with no known author

When a source has no known author, use a shortened title of the work instead of an author name. Place the title in quotation marks if it's a short work (such as an article) or italicize it if it's a longer work (e.g. plays, books, television shows, entire Web sites) and provide a page number if it is available.

We see so many global warming hotspots in North America likely because this region has "more readily accessible climatic data and more comprehensive programs to monitor and study environmental change . . ." ("Impact of Global Warming").

In this example, since the reader does not know the author of the article, an abbreviated title of the article appears in the parenthetical citation which corresponds to the full name of the article which appears first at the left-hand margin of its respective entry in the Works Cited. Thus, the writer includes the title in quotation marks as the signal phrase in the parenthetical citation in order to lead the reader directly to the source on the Works Cited page. The Works Cited entry appears as follows:

"The Impact of Global Warming in North America." Global Warming: Early Signs. 1999. http://www.climatehotmap.org/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2009.

We'll learn how to make a Works Cited page in a bit, but right now it's important to know that parenthetical citations and Works Cited pages allow readers to know which sources you consulted in writing your essay, so that they can either verify your interpretation of the sources or use them in their own scholarly work.

Author-page citation for classic and literary works with multiple editions

Page numbers are always required, but additional citation information can help literary scholars, who may have a different edition of a classic work like Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto. In such cases, give the page number of your edition (making sure the edition is listed in your Works Cited page, of course) followed by a semicolon, and then the appropriate abbreviations for volume (vol.), book (bk.), part (pt.), chapter (ch.), section (sec.), or paragraph (par.). For example:

Marx and Engels described human history as marked by class struggles (79; ch. 1).

Citing authors with same last names

Sometimes more information is necessary to identify the source from which a quotation is taken. For instance, if two or more authors have the same last name, provide both authors' first initials (or even the authors' full name if different authors share initials) in your citation. For example:

Although some medical ethicists claim that cloning will lead to designer children (R. Miller 12), others note that the advantages for medical research outweigh this consideration (A. Miller 46).

Citing a work by multiple authors

For a source with two authors, list the authors’ last names in the text or in the parenthetical citation:

Best and Marcus argue that one should read a text for what it says on its surface, rather than looking for some hidden meaning (9).

The authors claim that surface reading looks at what is “evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts” (Best and Marcus 9).

Corresponding works cited entry:

Best, David, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations, vol. 108, no. 1, Fall 2009, pp. 1-21. JSTOR, doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1

For a source with three or more authors, list only the first author’s last name, and replace the additional names with et al.

According to Franck et al., “Current agricultural policies in the U.S. are contributing to the poor health of Americans” (327).

The authors claim that one cause of obesity in the United States is government-funded farm subsidies (Franck et al. 327).

Corresponding works cited entry:

Franck, Caroline, et al. “Agricultural Subsidies and the American Obesity Epidemic.” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, vol. 45, no. 3, Sept. 2013, pp. 327-333.

Citing multiple works by the same author

If you cite more than one work by a particular author, include a shortened title for the particular work from which you are quoting to distinguish it from the others. Put short titles of books in italics and short titles of articles in quotation marks.

Citing two articles by the same author:

Lightenor has argued that computers are not useful tools for small children ("Too Soon" 38), though he has acknowledged elsewhere that early exposure to computer games does lead to better small motor skill development in a child's second and third year ("Hand-Eye Development" 17).

Citing two books by the same author:

Murray states that writing is "a process" that "varies with our thinking style" (Write to Learn 6). Additionally, Murray argues that the purpose of writing is to "carry ideas and information from the mind of one person into the mind of another" (A Writer Teaches Writing 3).

Additionally, if the author's name is not mentioned in the sentence, you would format your citation with the author's name followed by a comma, followed by a shortened title of the work, followed, when appropriate, by page numbers:

Visual studies, because it is such a new discipline, may be "too easy" (Elkins, "Visual Studies" 63).

Citing multivolume works

If you cite from different volumes of a multivolume work, always include the volume number followed by a colon. Put a space after the colon, then provide the page number(s). (If you only cite from one volume, provide only the page number in parentheses.)

. . . as Quintilian wrote in Institutio Oratoria (1: 14-17).

Citing the Bible

In your first parenthetical citation, you want to make clear which Bible you're using (and underline or italicize the title), as each version varies in its translation, followed by book (do not italicize or underline), chapter and verse. For example:

Ezekiel saw "what seemed to be four living creatures," each with faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (New Jerusalem Bible, Ezek. 1.5-10).

If future references employ the same edition of the Bible you’re using, list only the book, chapter, and verse in the parenthetical citation.

Citing indirect sources

Sometimes you may have to use an indirect source. An indirect source is a source cited in another source. For such indirect quotations, use "qtd. in" to indicate the source you actually consulted. For example:

Ravitch argues that high schools are pressured to act as "social service centers, and they don't do that well" (qtd. in Weisman 259).

Note that, in most cases, a responsible researcher will attempt to find the original source, rather than citing an indirect source.

Citing non-print or sources from the Internet

With more and more scholarly work being posted on the Internet, you may have to cite research you have completed in virtual environments. While many sources on the Internet should not be used for scholarly work (reference the OWL's Evaluating Sources of Information resource), some Web sources are perfectly acceptable for research. When creating in-text citations for electronic, film, or Internet sources, remember that your citation must reference the source in your Works Cited.

Sometimes writers are confused with how to craft parenthetical citations for electronic sources because of the absence of page numbers, but often, these sorts of entries do not require any sort of parenthetical citation at all. For electronic and Internet sources, follow the following guidelines:

  • Include in the text the first item that appears in the Work Cited entry that corresponds to the citation (e.g. author name, article name, website name, film name).
  • You do not need to give paragraph numbers or page numbers based on your Web browser’s print preview function.
  • Unless you must list the Web site name in the signal phrase in order to get the reader to the appropriate entry, do not include URLs in-text. Only provide partial URLs such as when the name of the site includes, for example, a domain name, like CNN.com or Forbes.com as opposed to writing out http://www.cnn.com or http://www.forbes.com.

Miscellaneous non-print sources

Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo stars Herzog's long-time film partner, Klaus Kinski. During the shooting of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog and Kinski were often at odds, but their explosive relationship fostered a memorable and influential film.

During the presentation, Jane Yates stated that invention and pre-writing are areas of rhetoric that need more attention.

In the two examples above “Herzog” from the first entry and “Yates” from the second lead the reader to the first item each citation’s respective entry on the Works Cited page:

Herzog, Werner, dir. Fitzcarraldo. Perf. Klaus Kinski. Filmverlag der Autoren, 1982.

Yates, Jane. "Invention in Rhetoric and Composition." Gaps Addressed: Future Work in Rhetoric and Composition, CCCC, Palmer House Hilton, 2002.

Electronic sources

One online film critic stated that Fitzcarraldo "has become notorious for its near-failure and many obstacles" (Taylor, “Fitzcarraldo”).

The Purdue OWL is accessed by millions of users every year. Its "MLA Formatting and Style Guide" is one of the most popular resources (Russell et al.).

In the first example, the writer has chosen not to include the author name in-text; however, two entries from the same author appear in the Works Cited. Thus, the writer includes both the author’s last name and the article title in the parenthetical citation in order to lead the reader to the appropriate entry on the Works Cited page (see below). In the second example, “Russell et al.” in the parenthetical citation gives the reader an author name followed by the abbreviation “et al.,” meaning, “and others,” for the article “MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” Both corresponding Works Cited entries are as follows:

Taylor, Rumsey. "Fitzcarraldo." Slant, 13 Jun. 2003, www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/fitzcarraldo/.

Russell, Tony, et al. "MLA Formatting and Style Guide." The Purdue OWL, 2 Aug. 2016, owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/.

Multiple citations

To cite multiple sources in the same parenthetical reference, separate the citations by a semi-colon:

. . . as has been discussed elsewhere (Burke 3; Dewey 21).

Time-based media sources

When creating in-text citations for media that has a runtime, such as a movie or podcast, include the range of hours, minutes and seconds you plan to reference, like so (00:02:15-00:02:35).

When a citation is not needed

Common sense and ethics should determine your need for documenting sources. You do not need to give sources for familiar proverbs, well-known quotations or common knowledge. Remember, this is a rhetorical choice, based on audience. If you're writing for an expert audience of a scholarly journal, for example, they'll have different expectations of what constitutes common knowledge.

SUMMARY

  • Find credible sources using tools that are designed to find the types of sources you need.

LINKS

Here are some fantastic resources and tips on how to use them to their fullest extent:

Librarian/Digital Media Specialist/Teacher

– Tell one of these people your research topic and ask them to point you towards useful sources. Chances are that they know more about what’s available about your particular topic than you do. Depending on the size of your school, you may have a subject area librarian for the particular type of research you are doing. Some universities, for instance, have specialist librarians for topics like music, art, and humanities.

Tip: When asking your librarian or teacher, just be sure to be tactful. Remember: librarians are there to help, but they won’t do all your research for you.

Academic journals

– These journals are a great way to find cutting edge research on your topic. Academic journals add credibility and professionalism to a paper. They work well for both humanities and scientific papers. Most schools/universities have a subscription to a large database of academic journals. Some commonly used databases are JSTOR and EBSCO Host. If you don’t know what types of services your school subscribes to, ask your teacher/librarian about them.

Another great way to access academic papers is Google Scholar. It is a search tool that finds scholarly articles–academic journals, patents, theses, court proceedings, and more. Google Scholar displays how many times an academic piece of literature was cited, which is a rough numerical indicator of how influential the research was. Google Scholar also has link under each posting to help you find related articles.

Microsoft has a competitor to Google Scholar that is very similar, Microsoft Academic Search. Microsoft’s tool works particularly well for technical papers in fields such as physics, mathematics, biology, and engineering.

Books

– Books are still one of the best ways to find credible information about a source. Some fields such as the humanities prefer their students use books for sources rather than websites, since books typically contain more detailed information (and perhaps more in-depth thinking) than websites do. Books can be found on your school or public library website. Type in keywords related to your topic in the search field, and see what kinds of literature comes up. Write down the call number of the book so that you can find it within your library. Ask your librarian for help if you’re not sure how your library is organized.

Google has another service, Google Books, that will help you find books related to your topic. Just type your research topic into the field and Google Books will provide you with a list of relevant books. Once you click on a book you like, Google Books will give you a preview of the book and information related to buying the book or finding it in your library.

Websites

– Websites are sources you should approach with caution. Some experts publish great information on the Internet, but there’s a lot of bad information out there as well. The trick is to weed out the unreliable information. The section entitled “Evaluating sources for credibility” is all about that process. Here, we’ll discuss some great resources that will help you find good information.

Tip: Multipurpose search engines (Google, Bing, and Yahoo) aren’t necessarily trying to provide you with the best academic results. They help people with a lot of things (shopping, searching for flights, comparing restaurants). You don’t want all of these sorts of results to get mixed up in your research!

Here are some tools that help you find information for a particular field of interest:

SubjectName of toolComments
MedicalPubMedSearchable database of academic medical literature; managed by the US National Library of Medicine.
MedicalGoPubMedA feature-rich compilation of academic medical literature.
MedicalMedline PlusEasy-to-read guides and videos; not as technical as other medical search engines; managed by the National Institutes of Health,
HumanitiesJURNA curated search engine for humanities researchers.
HumanitiesProject MuseA database of over 200 non-profit publishers.
EconomicsNBER – National Bureau of Economic ResearchSearchable database of economic papers.
CrimeNational Criminal Justice Reference ServicesA database of articles about issues pertaining to the justice system, including court cases, crime prevention, drugs, etc.
GeneralOAIsterFeature-rich search tool for a variety of different sources; managed by the OCLC.
GeneralRefseekA powerful, general-purpose search engine that finds websites, academic papers, books, newspapers, and more. The site has a variety of features that help you narrow down your search.
GeneralSweet SearchA search engine crafted specifically for students. Every website that shows up as search result has been hand-picked by research experts.
GeneraliSeekAn education-focused general search engine with helpful tools to narrow down your search
Generalipl2The site contains a search engine and an index of helpful, credible sites arranged by topic.
GeneralEasyBib Research (Beta)EasyBIb research makes the bibliographies on our site searchable, so you can look at sources about your topic that other students are using.
ChemistryPubChemContains academic chemistry information; managed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
PhilosophyPhilPapersA database of academic papers related to philosophy.
ScienceScience.govA resource of scientific papers and information; overseen by the US government.
ScienceScirusA search engine geared towards scientific information.
ScienceDirectory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)A database of scholarly scientific information.
StatisticsUS Census BureauStatistics in the US, arranged topically (Education, Business, Agriculture, etc.).
StatisticsCIA World FactbookStatistics, reports, maps, history, and other information about 267 countries.

Tip: Many schools have online topic pages, where the school’s librarians have grouped together helpful resources dedicated to a particular topic like chemistry, history, or religious studies. The LibGuides at Rice University is one example.

 

1) A note on large search engines (Google, Bing, and Yahoo)

SUMMARY

  • Use Google when you are doing preliminary research or looking for a particular source
  • In other cases, you’re probably better off using a more academically-oriented source.

LINKS

As far as research is concerned, Google is a double-edged sword. (The pros/cons of Google apply to other major search engines such as Bing and Yahoo as well.)

First, the benefits of Google’s search engine: It’s fast and provides you with a lot of information.

But the list of negatives is weighty:

  • Many of Google’s search results are biased and non-academic.

    Several of the websites that appear in Google’s results are written by businessmen who are trying to sell you something. They aren’t interested in presenting you with unbiased data.

  • Google’s search results are tailored to you

    (based on your past browsing history, your location, the sites you’ve visited previously, etc.). The problem with this individualization of search results is that Google is not providing you with the best information, it’s giving you what it thinks you’ll click on. Those may be two separate things.

  • Google’s results are focused on information available on the internet space that is easily accessed.

    There is a large amount of great information available on the “invisible web” that Google cannot find. The invisible web consists of sites that are not linked to externally, which makes them hidden from Google’s searching and indexing software.

For these reasons, we have a couple of reservations about using Google’s search engine for research purposes. To help, we’ve drafted a couple general rules about when and when not to use Google.

Use Google’s search engine…

  • When you’re doing preliminary research (assessing the depth and breadth of your topic).
  • When you know of a specific source, and you just need to find it on the Internet.

Try using another resource other than Google’s search engine…

  • When you want to find an academic article.
  • When you’re looking for a primary source.
  • When you’re looking for a technical paper.

 

2) A note on Wikipedia

SUMMARY:

  • Information on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone–not necessarily an expert.
  • Use Wikipedia as a starting point for your research.
  • Check Wikipedia’s references at the bottom of the page. Those sources are more likely to be credible than Wikipedia itself.

LINKS:

Like Google’s search engine, Wikipedia is a mixed bag. It provides a great deal of relevant information in a very fast manner, but that information is not necessarily credible. Content on Wikipedia can be edited by anyone–not necessarily an expert or credible author.

The editors at Wikipedia have come a long way in policing the site for bad posts and flagging items without citations; but you should always be suspect of information on the site because of its public nature.

Therefore, Wikipedia is best used at the start of your research to help you get a sense of the breadth and depth of your topic. It should never be cited in an academic paper.

Another reason why Wikipedia should not be cited in an academic research paper is that it aims to be like an encyclopedia–a source of reference information, not scholarly research or primary or secondary sources. One must delineate between general reference for general knowledge and scholarly sources for in-depth knowledge and research. Facts from reputable encyclopedias or similar sources can be used to supplement a paper, but keep in mind that these sources won’t contain any juicy analysis or scholarly study.

Perhaps the most useful part of a Wikipedia page is the “References” section at the bottom, which contains links to relevant sites that are often more credible than the Wikipedia page itself. Use a discerning eye when viewing these citations and apply the best practices of evaluating credible information (see “Evaluating sources for credibility”).

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