Commonsense MLA 8: Documentation for the Reader

By Russell Grooms

As a librarian at one of the largest community colleges in the nation, I constantly field questions about MLA citation from students, faculty members, and other librarians. Over the years, I have become our library’s citation guru, and I confess to being a citation nerd. I read The MLA Handbook (8th ed.) from cover to cover, and this post explains why you should too.

You might be skeptical. After all, you probably didn’t read every page of the seventh edition. If you are like me, you had a little sticky note on page 123, telling you which section to refer to for citing each type of source. The seventh edition is a reference work: to use it, you look up how to form individual citations for particular source types. The eighth edition is different. Half of the book is not meant to be used as a reference at all: instead, the foreword, preface, and entirety of part 1 explain the method for citing sources developed by the MLA and the reasons behind it. Part 1, which focuses on the concepts behind each element on the template and how to structure works-cited-list entries, is the key to understanding the new style. Part 2 offers mechanical details that show the implementation of the style; it can be consulted like a reference work later, but reading through it once will give you an understanding of the method behind the new style.

Most questions I encounter about citations can be answered by reflecting on the reasons behind the new method, set forth by the three guiding principles in the MLA Handbook:

Cite simple traits shared by most works.

Remember that there is often more than one correct way to document a source.

Make your documentation useful to readers. (3–4)

These principles direct us to take a commonsense approach to citing sources. All too often, I see writers overfocused on citation mechanics. They lose sight of the goal of documentation: “enabling readers to participate fully in the conversations between writers and their sources” (MLA Handbook xii). You can answer any tricky documentation question by stepping back and asking yourself, How am I using my sources and how can I cite them in a way that helps my reader?

For example, consider how students with different goals might cite the same source: Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A student doing a close reading of one version of the tales in an introductory English composition class will likely use the MLA template of core elements to create a very basic works-cited-list entry with author, title, publisher, and year. A fourth-year student writing an honor’s thesis comparing German translations of folk tales might list the translator as the primary author and the Grimm brothers as other contributors. Another student writing a thesis about illustrations in nineteenth-century children’s literature would likely indicate the illustrator first. A student using a rare first edition from the library’s special collections may need to include the physical location of the item. An important point here is that a single student’s use of MLA style could evolve as course work becomes more specialized and documentation needs change. Teaching MLA style as a rigid set of rules simply will not work. The flexibility of MLA 8 also creates an opportunity for faculty members to develop their own “house style” that meets their needs as well as students’. You can read more about this in my second post, to be published later this week.

Interestingly, the same guiding principles appear in the seventh edition of the MLA Handbook (129). The difference is that in MLA 8, these concepts move from the background to the forefront, informing every decision that we make as writers. It is essential to read the entire MLA Handbook, because it clarifies the logic underlying the style. If you let these concepts guide your way, you can handle any citation in MLA 8. Just remember that, above all, documentation is for the reader.

Works Cited

MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

Published 22 February 2017

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