The MLA-style in-text citation is a highly compressed format, designed to synthesize the flow of your own ideas with the power and precision of brief factual references. Clunky mechanics will overpower your original thoughts. (See also: Academic Writing; Thesis Statements.)
|One engineer who figures prominently in all accounts of the 1986 Challenger accident says NASA was “absolutely relentless and Machiavellian” about following procedures to the letter (Vaughan 221).|
|The standard MLA citation uses just the author’s last name and the page number (or, for a poem, a line number) separated by a space–not a comma.|
|Diane Vaughan cites a shuttle engineer who says NASA was “absolutely relentless and Machiavellian” about following procedures to the letter (221).|
|When your own sentence mentions the author, do not repeat the author in the parenthetical citation.|
|In high school, you may have been rewarded for introducing every quote with a full sentence identifying the author and mentioning the author’s credentials. The bold text above and below is useless filler.|
|An MLA-style paper does not ask you to give the full name and credentials of your sources in the body of your paper, or even the full title of your source. (Save that information for the Works Cited list.)|
Integrate Brief Quotations from Outside Sources
If you bring your essay to a screeching halt in order to introduce the full name and credentials of each author, you will bury whatever argument you were trying to make.
Spot the Wordy Formula
|Have you ever noticed how some people just won’t shut up? In the book Why I Love Words by humorist Ira Talott, a similar point is made on page 45: “The streets are full of people who talk to themselves, who write journal entries to nobody. Do they feel that speaking and writing is more important than listening and reading? These people are boring at parties, but are they arrogant? They are compulsive communicators. It’s more likely that they simply live in perpetual fear of silence.” This quote shows that people who talk too much may not actually be able to help themselves, so we should be kind to them.|
|The above example makes a very small point, quoting a much longer passage than necessary, and expending far too many words on the buildup.|
|Wordy Formula||All That Really Matters|
|Intro||Have you ever noticed how some people just won’t shut up? In the book Why I Love Words by humorist Ira Talott, we see a similar point is made on page 45.||Have you ever noticed how some people just won’t shut up? In the book Why I Love Words by humorist Ira Talott, we see a similar point is made on page 45.|
|Quote||The streets are full of people who talk to themselves, who write journal entries to nobody. Do they feel that speaking and writing is more important than listening and reading? These people are boring at parties, but are they arrogant? They are compulsive communicators. It’s far more likely that they may simply live in perpetual fear of silence.||The streets are full of people who talk to themselves, who write journal entries to nobody. Do they feel that speaking and writing is more important than listening and reading? These people are boring at parties, but are they arrogant? They are compulsive communicators. It’s far more likely that they may simply live in perpetual fear of silence.|
|Opinion||This quote shows that people who talk too much may not actually be able to help themselves, so we should be kind to them.||This quote shows that people who talk too much may not actually be able to help themselves, so we should be kind to them.|
|Talott is sympathetic towards “compulsive communicators,” who are “boring at parties,” but who are not actually arrogant; instead, they “simply live in perpetual fear of silence” (45).|
|Which version do you think is better writing — the original (114 words) or the revision (27 words)?|
Which version takes more skill to write?
Which would you rather read?
Three Potential Ways to Apply Borrowed Material
The following examples show three different ways that the same quoted material could be used to advance an original argument, by directly tying the material from one source to related material from another source.
|Talott is sympathetic towards “compulsive communicators,” who are “boring at parties” (45), but who are not actually arrogant. These people “live in perpetual fear of silence,” which makes them “especially susceptible to bottom-feeding advertising campaigns” (Jones 132) that prey upon low self-esteem and body image.|
|Talott is sympathetic towards “compulsive communicators,” who are “boring at parties” (45), but who are not actually arrogant. These people “live in perpetual fear of silence,” not unlike Miss Bates from Emma, whose well-meaning but dull conversation makes her an easy victim of the heroine’s insensitive teasing.|
|Talott is sympathetic towards “compulsive communicators,” who are “boring at parties” (45), but who are not actually arrogant. These people “live in perpetual fear of silence,” which contrasts sharply with the title character in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who would “prefer not to” leave the silent prison of his own making. [Note: In this last case, Bartleby repeatedly says that he would “prefer not to” do various things… I didn’t cite a specific page number, because the phrase appears in multiple places. –DGJ]|
Note the absence of phrases like, “This quote supports my claims because…” or “Another quote offers a useful contrast with this quote.” These revisions aren’t wasting any words talking about “quotes” or “sources,” just as a good carpenter won’t call attention to nail holes or sawed joints.
Integrate Borrowed Material Smoothly and Efficiently
Avoid clunky, high-schoolish documentation like the following:
|In the book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, by Fredrich A. Kittler, it talks about writing and gender, and says on page 186, “an omnipresent metaphor equated women with the white sheet of nature or virginity onto which a very male stylus could inscribe the glory of its authorship.” As you can see from this quote, all this would change when women started working as professional typists.|
|The passages “it talks about” and “As you can see from this quote” are very weak attempts to engage with the ideas presented by Kittler. In addition, “In the book… it talks” is ungrammatical (“the book” and “it” are redundant subjects) and nonsensical (books don’t talk).|
|In the mid 1880s, “an omnipresent metaphor equated women with the white sheet of nature or virginity onto which a very male stylus could inscribe the glory of its authorship” (Kittler 186), but all this would change when women started working as professional typists.|
|This revision is marginally better, but only because it uses fewer words — it’s still not integrating the outside quote into the author’s own argument.|
Don’t expend words writing about quotes and sources. If you provide a lengthy introduction such as “In the book My Big Boring Academic Study, by Professor H. Pompous Windbag III, it says” or “the following quote by a government study shows that…” you are wasting words that would be better spent developing your ideas.
Using about the same space as the original, see how MLA style helps an author devote more words to developing the idea more fully. We shall continue to revise the above example:
|Before the invention of the typewriter, “an omnipresent metaphor” among professional writers concerned “a very male stylus” writing upon the passive, feminized “white sheet of nature or virginity” (Kittler 186). By contrast, the word “typewriter” referred to the machine as well as the female typist who used it (183).|
|This revision is perhaps a bit hard to follow, when taken out of context. But if you put a bit of introduction into the space you saved by cutting back on wasted words, the thought is clearer.|
|To Kittler, the concept of the pen as a masculine symbol imposing form and order upon feminized, virginal paper was “an omnipresent metaphor” (186) in the days before the typewriter. But businesses were soon clamoring for the services of typists, who were mostly female. In fact, “typewriter” meant both the machine and the woman who used it (183).|
|The above revision mentions Kittler’s name in the body, and cites two different places in Kittler’s text (identified by page number alone). This is a perfectly acceptable variation of the standard author-page parenthetical citation.|
If your college instructor wants you to cite every fact or opinion you find in an outside source, how do you make room for your own opinion?
- Paraphrase. You can introduce studies that agree with you (Smith 123; Jones and Chin 123) and those that disagree with you (Mohan and Corbett 200) without interrupting your own argument. (See what I did there?)
- Quote Selectively. If you must use the original author’s language, work a few words from the outside source into a sentence you wrote yourself. (If you can’t supply at least as many words of your own analysis of and rebuttal to the quoted passage, then you are probably padding.)
- Avoid Summary. Summarizing someone else’s ideas is one of the easiest ways to churn out words; while students often turn to summary when they want to boost their word count, paragraphs that merely summarize are not as intellectually engaging, and therefore not worth as many points, as paragraphs that analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. See “Writing that Demonstrates Thinking Ability.”)
While MLA Style generally expects authors to save details for the Works Cited pages, there’s nothing wrong with introducing the work more fully — if you have a good reason to do so.
For example, in a paper on the history of the typewriter, you might want to refer to the typist who appears in T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land.” If so, you should identify the source as a poem, so that reader won’t mistake the reference for an academic article. In a similar way, if your paper mainly cites poets, you might need to identify somebody else as an editor or literary critic. Or, perhaps you feel that a particular author’s nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, or education level may affect the relevance of a particular point raised by the author.
Don’t give the full, high-schoolish introduction without a good reason — the presence of irrelevant details is a signal to your reader that you don’t know what you want to say.
Integrated Quotes Facilitate Smarter Writing
How good is a composer who only lets one instrument play at a time? Would you like a pizza that was served to you first as a dry round crust, then a bowl of tomato sauce, then a hunk of cheese?
Avoid a rigid, simplistic organizational structure focused only on summarizing or reflecting on the sources you have found. It’s not possible to think about an issue in a complex way if you examine only one source per paragraph.
|Sweeping general statements, gradually working to a specific mention of topic X.|
Summary of how Source A “talks about X.”
Summary of how Source B “talks about X.”
Summary of how Source C “talks about X.”
Conclusion: “Therefore, this paper has shown that A, B, and C all relate to topic X.”
|This structure won’t permit you to make original connections between your sources and your main idea. You will end up writing too much summary and not enough original argument. The organization of your paper should flow from the argument that you plan to make.|
Consider instead the following, more intellectually complex use of sources:
|Introduction (If source A says “All novels are works of fiction,” and source B says “In Cold Blood is a nonfiction narrative,” and source C says “In Cold Blood is a novel,” they can’t all be right. Your introduction would be where you explain how you will solve the problem — which of your sources do you disagree with?)|
Point 1 (If A is right that all novels are fiction, and B is right that In Cold Blood is nonfiction, then what do we make of C’s claim that In Cold Blood is a novel? Rather than just asking the question, here is where you would present your answer, and write a paragraph that draws on all 3 sources to support the position you take.)
Point 2 (If B is right that this book is nonfiction, and C is right that this book is a novel, is A wrong to claim that all novels are nonfiction? Again, rather than just asking the question, you would take a position, and present the evidence that supports your position.)
Point 3 (If C is right that this book is a novel, and A is right that all novels are fiction, is B right to claim that this book is nonfiction? Instead of just asking the question, you would take a position and write a paragraph that presents evidence to defend that position.)
Conclusion: Based on how you resolved the problems you noted above, what new insights are available? Rather than repeating your introduction, or asking a new question that you leave unanswered, this is where you make statements that your reader can only accept after reading the connections you have drawn between the details you have cited from several sources in the body of your paper.
|You don’t need to find such a perfectly balanced three-way argument. Simply finding two credible sources that disagree with each other, and taking one side or the other, is often good enough.|
I constructed this three-way argument in order to demonstrate a complex order that does not focus on one source at a time. It would be impossible to make this complex argument in a paper composed of separate paragraphs that engage with one source at a time.
If you ask yourself questions about how your sources relate to one another, then you can avoid summary and still have plenty to write about.
These are subtleties that you cannot really investigate when you introduce outside sources only in self-contained paragraphs that reference no other sources.
|Dennis G. Jerz|
Finding Good Sources
A reference librarian is specially trained to help patrons find the best sources. An Internet search engine, on the other hand, will show you plenty of sources that will waste your time.Dennis G. Jerz
Integrating Quotations in MLA Style
The MLA-style in-text citation is a highly compressed format, designed to avoid interrupting the flow of ideas. A proper MLA inline citation uses just the author’s last name and the page number (or line number), separated by a space (nota comma).Dennis G. Jerz
Academic Journals: Using Them Properly
“Crazy Joe’s Shakespeare Website” probably won’t have the authoritative information your English professor is looking for. If you want up-to-date, accurate articles, look in an academic journal.David Nies and Dennis G. Jerz
Using MS-Word to Format a Paper in MLA Style
This step-by-step set of directions will help you use MS-Word to format an English paper properly.Dennis G. Jerz
MLA Style Bibliography Builder
Updated to handle web sources (Jan 2001). Choose a form, fill it out, and push the button… you will get an individual MLA “Works Cited” entry, which you may then copy and paste into your word processor.
03 Oct 2007 — extracted and expanded from a handout that focused on finding good sources.
04 Nov 2011 — reorganization and updates
20 Dec 2016 — further reorganization and updates