Make MLA Style Work for You: Create Your Own House Style

By Russell Grooms

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.

Work Cited

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

Published 24 February 2017

4 comments on “Make MLA Style Work for You: Create Your Own House Style”

  1. This is helpful, not having read MLA 8. My fellow teachers and I are discussing how Google docs’ “explore” citation tool for internet resources can be made consistent with citing books in the same paper. Google uses a footnote instead of parenthetical citation, breaking with how I was taught to do MLA before the internet existed. Now, perhaps this is the neatest, cleanest, and best way to document sources?

    Any advice this audience can give would be appreciated.

    • MLA stopped using footnotes for documentation in 1984 and has used parenthetical citations since, but this is still an interesting question to consider (MLA Handbook xi). Essentially, it comes down to whether footnotes or parenthetical citations are less disruptive to the flow of ideas. The goal of in-text citation is to point the reader to a source listed in the works cited page and specify the location of information within the source (e.g., page number) while minimizing the disruption in reading that documentation causes (MLA Handbook 58). The larger goal is good writing and clear communication, so we have to consider which type of documentation facilitates that.

      Parenthetical citations are concise but add words within the text. Footnotes can easily be ignored and referred to if a reader has interest. The problem with footnotes is that they give enough information to find the source without referring to the works cited page, making them bulky. Footnotes could be made less disruptive if they were simplified to include only information found in parenthetical citations, but while this would be less disruptive to the reader, it might disrupt the writing process. Many novices, especially students, have difficulty inserting footnotes using word processing applications. Parenthetical citations are probably the best way to document sources in-text.

      For information on how footnotes can be used for content notes or bibliographic explanations, see: https://style.mla.org/2016/02/29/using-notes-in-mla-style/

  2. I teach at a relatively small college, but we still have eleven instructors teaching courses that use MLA documentation. This “house style” isn’t a very good solution for us, since we sometimes evaluate each other’s assignments and misunderstand each other’s house styles. The one that MLA needs to address is the in-text, parenthetical reference after online sources. I really expected this to be addressed in the 8th edition, with specific instructions for how to cite in different scenarios–a paragraph with a specific signal phrase, different information in signal phrases and how they change the parenthetical reference, and so on. Instead, we get one brief sentence in the handbook, and the above paragraph which seems to be an admission that the rules aren’t sufficiently well-defined. I think MLA needs to do better. It’s been over a decade since sources without page numbers became common in student essays. Why hasn’t MLA taken a strong stance on how to address them?

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