Is it ever acceptable to mention a work but not include it in the list of works cited?

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.

Yes. But first let’s review when documentation is needed.

A works-cited-list entry is needed for any source

  • that you quote from or paraphrase
  • that you refer to substantively, whether the reference is to a specific place in the source (a page, a chapter) or to the source as a whole
  • that you explicitly acknowledge your use of (e.g., for a fact, for an idea)

The purpose is to avoid plagiarism, “presenting another person’s ideas, information, expressions, or entire work as one’s own” (MLA Handbook 6–7).

Regardless of the type of piece you are writing—a research paper, an essay that argues a point, an article that explains or gives an account of something—such documentation is needed. It should always be clear to your readers, if you follow this policy of full disclosure, what is original to you and what is not.

Next, let’s look at the two main instances when documentation isn’t needed.

Common Knowledge

Documentation is not needed for “[i]nformation and ideas that are common knowledge” (10)—that is, information that can be verified and assumed to be shared by many. Biographical details (date of birth and death for a famous person) and historical dates that can be found in reference sources and can be corroborated are examples of common knowledge.

If your audience is local—your classroom, your school, your community—common knowledge might include things that the public at large does not know. In that case, a works-cited-list entry might not be needed.

Passing References

When you mention a work or author in passing, a works-cited-list entry is not needed. For example, if you state that your favorite book is Catcher in the Rye, you have not quoted from or paraphrased the book, referred to any aspect of it specifically, or used it to advance an idea. You’ve simply stated that the book exists and gave an opinion about it. This is a passing reference.

Another example: if you point in an aside to several films that owe a debt to Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai, you are making a general observation that does not need a source. But if you detail specific ways that John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, a 1960 remake of Seven Samurai, falls short of the original, you should provide documentation for both films.

An Additional Consideration

If you are recommending a certain edition of a work, a works-cited-list entry may not be needed but could help direct readers to a source that you value.

Work Cited

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