Note: This post relates to content in the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook. For up-to-date guidance, see the ninth edition of the MLA Handbook.
Most writers think of citation styles as monolithic, inflexible sets of rules, but MLA 8 is a method that was built for customization. It is meant to be adapted by different users for different purposes, as I explained in an earlier post. This is a great strength of the style given that it is used in such a wide variety of contexts, from K–12 education to the highest levels of academe to the larger world of publishing. Individuals or groups—teachers, educational institutions, and publishers—may develop their own variations on MLA style, as long as they adhere to a few core principles: follow the template of core elements to cite traits common to most works (e.g., author and title); there may be many equally correct ways to document a source; documentation should be useful to readers and include all relevant bibliographic information (MLA Handbook 3–4).
Personal preference is built in to MLA 8, especially for online sources. One teacher might prefer that her students provide hyperlinks in the works-cited list because the links help her access the sources with a single click, allowing for faster source checking and evaluation. Another might think that the blue, underlined links look sloppy and clutter the page. He might prefer shortened URLs or no URLs at all. The MLA Handbook leaves this decision to the discretion of the teacher (48). Others may want access dates for all sources, even though these are not required for sources with clear publication dates. The style’s built-in options mean that all these variations are “correct” in MLA 8, because they serve the needs of the reader—in this case, the teacher.
Just as publishers often develop a “house style” sheet that supplements whatever published style guide they use and addresses their specific needs and preferences, so too can teachers. What gives teachers the power to deviate from “standard” MLA style? They are the primary readers of a student’s research, and in the MLA Handbook readers are the ultimate authority: “Make your documentation useful to the reader” (4). Teachers act as surrogate readers, standing in for the writer’s audience. By representing the reader, they help students develop the judgment and flexibility needed to anticipate the needs of readers and adapt documentation to those needs.
Deviating from the norm, however, creates an obligation for teachers. You have a responsibility to clearly communicate your expectations to students early in the research process. If a “house style” is used, provide samples (just as publishers do) and explain why you have a preference. For instance, “I require live hyperlinks, because it helps me find your sources faster. I like to see what sources you found and how you used them.” This creates a prime opportunity to ignite a discussion on scholarly communication that will help students understand how citations are used and why they are important: citations enable students to connect their research with others’ work and to join the greater scholarly conversation.
MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.