Using Notes in MLA Style

By Angela Gibson

The MLA’s system of documentation relies on in-text references that aim to keep the reader’s focus on the main text. In some cases, however, a bibliographic citation works better in a note than in a parenthetical citation. Notes may also be a useful or even necessary means of providing supplementary commentary or information that would be distracting if it appeared in the main text.

Whether and when to use a note requires judgment and is a skill learned with experience. Context is also important: what is appropriate for a dissertation writer, for example—to show exhaustive knowledge of a topic and stake out clear differences from previous scholarship—will not be appropriate for an undergraduate research paper. In the sections below, we offer guidance to help you determine when and how to use notes in MLA style.

Bibliographic Notes

Bibliographic notes can help you avoid cluttering up the text or digressing from the main line of argumentation. MLA style uses them in the following ways:

To cite a lengthy string of sources:

1See Holloway 5–8; Burstyn; Glynnis; Camp, DeVere, et al.; Sulkin, History of Magic; Darby, Dragon Magic 87–92.

To make evaluative comments on sources. Sometimes, resources that don’t directly aid your argument but that you encountered while conducting research might be useful for readers to know about, should they wish to gain a more complete understanding of the topic you write about:

5For a sampling of materials that reflect the range of experiences related to recent technological changes, see Taylor A1; Moulthrop, pars. 39-53; Armstrong et al. 80-82; Craner 308-11; and Fukuyama 42.

To identify fruitful areas of future research:

4No one has yet written about the striking reference in the McGriffin manuscript to griffin teeth being found by Kode in the early sixth century.

To economically flag translations and editions used. Writers engaged in more complex projects or consulting complicated sources can use notes to assist with economy of citation. For example, if you quote from the same edition or translation of a work throughout your project except in one or two instances, a global note indicating your source “unless otherwise noted” will save you from having to use in-text references to indicate the source each time you cite it:

6Citations of Othello refer to Bevington’s Complete Works unless otherwise noted.
8Translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

It is generally clearest to place the note in the text where the work is first quoted. An alternative is to create an initial, unnumbered note.


In this essay, the English translation of Usos amorosos is by Margaret E. W. Jones. All other translations are mine.

1 Time allowing, Labanyi’s “Resemanticizing Feminine Surrender” could be assigned.

2 The use of the term in Spain was inspired by the tiny, jaunty Fiat 500 Topolino. In Italian, topolino means “little mouse” or “scamp.”

To explain a citation to a text with an unusual or complicated structure or flag an unusual documentation practice. When texts lack standard features, like pagination, or contain unusual features, like marginalia, notes can help explain your documentation to readers:

2Citations of the Latin marginalia refer to Macaulay’s edition of the poem and are cited by page number. References to the Middle English poem cite Peck’s edition by line number.
4The 1995 Fata Morgana reedition of Tombeau d’Ibn Arabi has no pagination; hence, stanza numbers take the place of page numbers in citations of the French text.

To document an epigraph. Epigraphs are ornamental and thus do not typically require documentation beyond the author’s name and title. Should you elect to give readers more information about a chapter epigraph, do so in a note. The note can either be numbered and follow the epigraph attribution line or appear as an initial, unnumbered note. An epigraph at the beginning of a book should not be accompanied by a note.

When to Use Bibliographic Notes

  The MLA, in its editorial practice, makes decisions about when to move references from the text to the note on a case-by-case basis. Here, we offer some general guidelines to help you make decisions. References to a few authors’ names work well in parenthetical references, as do references to simple titles and page ranges:

Recent work by dragonologists attests to the lively manuscript production at the McDragon monastery (Burstyn; Glynnis; Holloway).
Recent work by dragonologists attests to the lively manuscript production at the McDragon monastery (Burstyn, McDragon Dragons; Glynnis; Holloway).
Recent work by dragonologists attests to the lively manuscript production at the McDragon monastery (Burstyn; Glynnis; Holloway 5-17).

Simple annotation is also acceptable:

Recent work by dragonologists attests to the lively manuscript production at the McDragon monastery (especially Burstyn; Glynnis; Holloway 5-17).

But use a note when a reference grows so long that it interrupts the flow of reading:

Recent work by dragonologists attests to the lively manuscript production at the McDragon monastery (Burstyn; Glynnis; Holloway; McKittrick and Clark; Blooster, Grady, et al.; Higginsbottom; Zelkirk and Doogan).

Recent work by dragonologists attests to the lively manuscript production at the McDragon monastery.1

1Burstyn; Glynnis; Holloway; McKittrick and Clark; Blooster, Grady, et al.; Higginsbottom; Zelkirk and Doogan.

Now that you understand when to use bibliographic notes, let’s move on to content notes.

Content Notes

Content notes offer the reader commentary or information that the main text can’t accommodate. In general, they should be used only when you need to justify or clarify what you have written or when further amplification of your point will be especially helpful to your readers. Many content notes include bibliographic references, but they are distinguished from strictly bibliographic notes by being conversational in nature.

Below are some examples of when content notes are used by academic writers.

To amplify. Notes can be used to provide important information or scholarship related but tangential to your point. If this amplification is lengthy or distracts from your main line of argumentation, use a note.

Often the heroine and her eventual husband are kept apart by misunderstanding, by the hero’s misguided attraction to another, by financial obstacles, or by family objections.3

3See Green, especially 1-7, and Hinnant for further description and discussion of the courtship novel. Green considers Mansfield Park a courtship novel, including it in a list of such novels in the period 1740-1820 (163–64).

In 1761, Blackstone insisted that a “literary Composition, as it lies in the Author’s Mind, before it is substantiated by reducing it to Writing, has the essential Requisites to make it the subject of property” (Tonson v. Collins 322).10

10This argument contradicts a number of different copyright doctrines, including the strict distinction between idea and expression.

To explain word choice. When your use of a word, phrase, or translation needs to be explained or justified but is not central to your argument, consider using a note. Explaining your use of a word or phrase is especially necessary, whether in the text or a note, when you coin a term or use it in a provisional sense.

“It seems that by to know he meant here theoretical knowledge and by to think practical knowledge” (295).8

8I have opted to translate the verb (rendered by Taylor as “to understand”) as “to think,” in order to avoid any possible confusion between this kind of thinking and intellection.

Modern celebrities emerged in these years as figures known not for what they do but for who they are, not for particular accomplishments but for “abnormally interesting” personalities that, while based on private lives, become matters of public concern.1

1Abnormally interesting is Roach’s term (It 4), though the idea of celebrities as people whose fame does not depend exclusively on their accomplishments originates with Boorstin.

To justify the scope of your study. If you need to comment on the scope of your study or point readers elsewhere for topics not addressed in it, consider using a note.

These nations have the right to pursue activities on their land that sustain their people, be the activity sustenance fishing or building a casino to generate revenues for land repurchase and elder care.1

1The casino debate is gnarly and well beyond the scope of this essay, but I point readers to Kauanui’s discussion of racist anticasino discourse in New England and to Jessica Cattelino’s important study of gaming and sovereignty.

Over the past hundred or so years various candidates for single authorship of the Cotton poems (and sometimes other poems as well) have been advanced with varying degrees of implausibility.9

9I leave aside the question of whether the Pearl poet (or poets) might also have written Saint Erkenwald; see, most recently, Borroff’s “Narrative Artistry,” which cites a number of earlier studies on the possible common authorship of Saint Erkenwald and the poems of the Pearl manuscript.

To provide additional or ancillary examples:

Turkish essay writers used the autobiography genre to demonstrate exempla of the national hero.3

3The same could be said, for example, of Irish writers. See David Lloyd in Nationalism and Minor Literature (160).

In the early to mid-1980s, an assortment of print venues ferociously caricatured an engorged and fleshy Wilde.10

10For example, in the illustrations accompanying the review of An Ideal Husband in the 12 January 1895 issue of the illustrator Harry Furniss’s magazine Lika Joko, a plump Wilde, dressed in a kimono, holds a crying baby in one hand while bathing a second, older child in a wash pan.

Emotions nevertheless resist their hypothetical nature, proposing their own cause or proper meaning. They define in order to secure themselves. They move to put uncertainty—and the vagaries of interpretation—to rest (de Man 151).4

4Recall, for instance, Othello’s jealousy and how it seizes on the handkerchief to establish the meaning of emotion.

To provide counterexamples:

The only creature featured in manuscript illuminations produced by the McDragon monastery in the late sixth century were dragons.7

7Although Holloway identifies an exception to this phenomenon—what she asserts is a singular griffin image accompanying the Story of Dragonsong in McDragon MS Kode Vitalis IX—she agrees that all other instances of animals in the manuscripts appear to be dragons. Recent work by dragonologists like Bloobler-Wickett suggests that what Holloway identifies as a griffin is, in fact, a poorly rendered baby dragon, likely painted by an apprentice dragonologist.

I pose the form-medium distinction heuristically because it allows us to get at two different dimensions of a literary text that relate in distinct ways to readerly agency.14

14Luhmann 102-32 presents an alternative formulation of this distinction.

To comment on obvious or instructive allusions:

The reader understands that laughter a moment late may not be permissible at all, considering that, for Baudelaire, the most “exaggerated” form of the “significative” comic is the “savage variety” (159).15

15On whether laughter is “permissible,” one is reminded of Freud’s contention in The Joke and Its Relations to the Unconscious that laughter is an expression of inhibition related to feelings that are, in fact, forbidden.

To acknowledge. Acknowledgment notes should be used sparingly, and they are most appropriate for professional writers. Scholars often use notes to acknowledge when a colleague led them to a particularly fruitful source or were directly and uniquely responsible for helping them develop an important idea through informal means like conversation and peer review. Now that you know when to use notes, learn all the ins and outs of styling them.

Styling of Notes

Notes may be styled either as footnotes or endnotes, according to the preference of your teacher, institution, or publisher. In its publications, the MLA uses endnotes.

Length of Notes

The MLA’s system of documentation discourages lengthy discussion in the notes, and writers are advised to avoid long notes. Block quotations are generally to be avoided in notes.

Placement of Notes

  Note numbers in the text are generally placed after a mark of punctuation. Whenever possible, place note numbers at the end of sentences:

The dragons are depicted as friendly and outgoing in the Saga of Dragonsong manuscript.3
Most editions of the Saga of Dragonsong translate this word as “fire-breather.”2
Palmer disagrees with the interpretation of dragons as friendly and outgoing, noting their “propensity for breathing fire” (151).4

An exception is the dash:

Although most dragons were friendly and outgoing5—they were, after all, highly social creatures—the dragons of West Marshland were notoriously cantankerous.

If clarity demands that the note be placed somewhere other than at the end of the sentence, find the clearest and least distracting spot for it:

Sweeney notes that most dragons bathed in sunlight every third day (called a “dragon-shoure”2), but the concept of “sun-ablutions” is not restricted to dragons.3

2On this term, see Ede’s edition, line 876.

3The term “sun-ablutions,” originally appearing in Ede’s edition (line 5), is omnipresent in the secondary literature on dragon ablutions, which is enormous; see esp. Rick, Dragon Hygiene; Colyer and MacDoogal-Toddy; Evanista 7-19; and Griffin.

Sometimes, placing that note in the middle of the sentence is clearest:

Instead of treating Oxford Street as a mere replica of the original metropolitan Oxford Street,1 Quayson keeps the sanctity of Accra’s specificity from being distorted through comparison.

1To prevent such underestimation and simplification, Fredric Jameson proposed the allegory of nation as a means to restore “Third World” literary texts to an autonomous sphere in the Western academy’s project of expanding the field of comparative literature. Quayson’s choice of comparisons is clearly linked to the same impulse.

Citing the Notes of Others

Cite a note in a parenthetical citation thus:


If the text you quote includes a footnote, do not reproduce the note number in your quote unless there is a unique and compelling reason to do so. You should generally build references to notes into the main body of your work whenever possible.

Published 22 August 2017

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