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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

How do I cite a quotation that I’ve altered?

In almost all cases you should transcribe a quotation exactly as it appears in the source. However, you may occasionally want to italicize words in a quotation to call special attention to them. If you add italics for emphasis, indicate that you’ve altered the quotation by using the phrase emphasis added (or my emphasis), like this:

Lincoln specifically advocated a government “for the people” (emphasis added).

To include an in-text citation with a quotation you’ve altered, put the citation first, followed by a semicolon, and then the words emphasis added:

Lincoln specifically advocated a government “for the people” (Brown 512; emphasis added).

For more on permissible alterations to quotations, see the MLA Handbook, eighth edition, section 1.3.6.

Published 1 March 2017

How do I cite an image found through an online search engine like Google Images?

To cite an image found through Google using the image-search function, you must identify the Web site—that is, the container—where the image was posted. For example, let’s say you found this image of The Muleteer by searching “Pompeii” and then “Bodies.”

Viewing the image thumbnail in the search-results list is not sufficient. You must click through to view the image on the site where it was posted: Decoded Past.

Since the artwork is contained in a blog post on a Web site, the works-cited-list entry would be composed of two containers:

Sheldon, Natasha. Photo of The Muleteer. “Human Remains in Pompeii: The Body Casts,” by Sheldon, 23 Mar. 2014. Decoded Past, decodedpast.com/human-remains-pompeii-body-casts/7532.

A second option would be to refer to the title of the image and its author in the body of your paper and then key your in-text citation to an entry for the blog post in the works-cited-list entry:

Sheldon, Natasha. “Human Remains in Pompeii: The Body Casts.” Decoded Past, 23 Mar. 2014, decodedpast.com/human-remains-pompeii-body-casts/7532.

Published 4 January 2017

How do I cite a data table?

To cite a table, follow the MLA template of core elements to create a works-cited-list entry for its source. The following example is an entry for a census report on language course enrollments:

Goldberg, David, et al. Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013. Modern Language Association, Feb. 2015, www.mla.org/enrollments_census.
This report has page numbers as well as numbered figures and tables, so the parenthetical reference will include the page number on which the table appears and the table number, in square brackets:
The MLA’s latest census of postsecondary institutions in the United States shows that 50.6% of the nation’s 1,562,179 enrollments in foreign language courses were in Spanish (Goldberg et al. 39 [table 6]). That is, enrollments in Spanish account for more enrollments in foreign language courses than all the other languages combined, putting Spanish “in a class of its own” (4).

In some contexts (e.g., when citing a table from an extensive data set), it might be practical to create a works-cited-list entry for an individual table:

“Table 311.80: Number and Percentage Distribution of Course Enrollments in Languages Other Than English at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions, by Language and Enrollment Level: Selected Years, 2002 through 2013.” Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_311.80.asp.

Published 2 January 2017

How do I document a source when I can’t use a works-cited-list entry or an endnote?

Sometimes, a source needs to be cited in a piece of prose that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of documentation appropriate for research papers. In a short, informal, or nonacademic piece of writing—such as a letter to the editor or an informational brochure like the one shown in the examples below, from an art school’s one-page tip sheet for new graduates looking for ad agency jobs—the MLA’s guidelines for formatting a works-cited-list entry can easily be adapted to a parenthetical citation.

When bibliographic facts are stated in parentheses, follow the same pattern as in the works-cited list, with two exceptions: the name of the author is given in normal order (not reversed), and periods after elements are converted into semicolons.

Tip 5: Your resume should stick to the facts—“Don’t do a cute resume” (Luke Sullivan; Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads; 4th ed., Wiley, 2012, p. 325).

If the name of the author and the title of the work are given in the running text, they do not need to be repeated in parentheses. The parenthetical information begins with the element that follows the title of the source.

Tip 5: Your resume should stick to the facts. As Luke Sullivan advises in Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads: “Don’t do a cute resume” (4th ed., Wiley, 2012, p. 325).

Captions, too, may need to document a source. Sources are documented the same way in captions that they are in parentheses.

Fig. 1. Charles Rennie Mackintosh; chair of stained oak; 1897–1900, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Published 5 January 2017

How do I distinguish works by an author that have the same title?

The eighth edition of the MLA Handbook recommends brevity and clarity in an in-text citation (116)—brevity so that a reference won’t obstruct the flow of reading and clarity so that the reader can easily find the corresponding entry in the works-cited list. If you cite two works by the same author, you must provide a short title in your in-text citation, and if two or more works by an author have the same title, additional information is needed so that the reference, if not quite as brief, will be clear.

You should usually include the first unique piece of information. Insert the information in square brackets:

EDITION
The documentation gave him a “dull but persistent headache” (Curse [3rd ed.] 45).  
 
PUBLISHER
In reply, Fustian remarked, “Excuse me?” (“Could” [Portland Gazette] 5).
 
TRANSLATOR
He repeated, over and over, “Jag förstår inte” (Förbannelsen [translated by Flint] 899).  
 
EDITOR
“Sometimes you just have to . . . spell it out” (Selected Works [edited by Prolix et al.] 278).

In some specialized works, however, where a particular piece of information is especially relevant to your discussion, you might decide to use that information instead. For example, in an essay on how editions of Othello have changed over time, the year of publication might be the clearest and most important information to give.

Works Cited

Fustian, Sebastian. “Could You Make That a Little Clearer?” Gallimaufry, 7 June 1994, www.gallimaufry.com.

———. “Could You Make That a Little Clearer?” Portland Gazette, vol. 10, no. 3, 1994, pp. 5–6.

———. The Curse of Uncertainty. 2nd ed., U of Florida P, 2015.

———. The Curse of Uncertainty. 3rd ed., Gotham Press, 2016. Critical Mess 7.

———. Förbannelsen av Osäkerhet. Translated by Gerulphus Flint, Röra Books, 2014.

———. Förbannelsen av Osäkerhet. Translated by Sandra Scramble, U of Stockholm, 2012.

———. Selected Works of Fustian. Edited by Rosalind Word Bloat and Jeremy Arcane,  Important Press, 2015.

———. Selected Works of Fustian. Edited by Edmund Prolix et al., Recondite UP, 2011.

Van Der Konzeiss, Vladimir, and Phineas Succinct. “Why We Cannot Stand Fustian.” The Old City Times, 15 Jan. 2015, pp. 8–12.

Work Cited

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

Published 7 December 2016

How do I cite a term in the dictionary that lists several numbered definitions?

To cite a term in the dictionary that includes different parts of speech in the headword, follow the MLA template of core elements and begin with the headword (as it appears) as the title of the source. Note that this may include parts of speech.

“Heavy, Adj. 1 and N.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2015, www.oed.com/view/Entry/85246?rskey=aIe8OM&result=1.
“Heavy.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., vol. 7, Clarendon Press, 1989, 84.

The first example above, taken from our sample fourth-year paper on Jane Austen, is for the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary; the second is for the print edition.

In the text of your work, provide a parenthetical citation that includes the term and the definition number:

Here, heavy does not mean overweight, as we might think, but probably “ponderous and slow in intellectual processes; wanting in facility, vivacity, or lightness” (“Heavy,” def. A.18).

Published 3 November 2016

Is using ibid. allowed for in-text citations? If so, how is it done?

MLA style avoids ibid. and op. cit., using short titles instead, on the principles that (1) a short title makes your reference clearer to readers, not requiring them to look back in text, notes, or documentation, with a groan, to find what exactly the abbreviation is pointing to, and that (2) the days of expecting an educated person to know Latin and Greek are over—i.e. and e.g. notwithstanding. QED.

Published 13 October 2016

When an organization is the author and the publisher of a work, the handbook advises writers to begin the works-cited-list entry with the title of the source. Is it OK to use the organization’s name in a signal phrase or in the in-text citation even though the name does not begin the works-cited-list entry?

No. The text should always key to the list of works cited. You can provide the key in the parenthetical citation or in your text. Below are two acceptable ways to cite the MLA Handbook:

According to the Modern Language Association of America, documentation should be useful to readers (MLA Handbook 4).
According to the MLA Handbook, documentation should be useful to readers (4).
The following two examples are insufficient, because MLA Handbook, the title of the work that begins the works-cited-list entry, is not mentioned:
Documentation should be useful to readers (Modern Language Association 4).
The Modern Language Association of America says that documentation should be useful to readers (4).
Work Cited
MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.
Citing sources in your text is covered in detail in the handbook (pp. 54–58 and section 3).

Published 16 August 2016

When documenting unpublished letters, should the descriptions of the letters that are used in place of a title appear in quotation marks or italics? If I am citing more than one letter written by the same person, how should I distinguish the letters in my in-text citation?

For unpublished letters, provide a generic description in place of the title (see pp. 28–29 of the MLA Handbook); do not enclose the description in quotation marks or italicize it. For example:
Benton, Thomas Hart. Letter to Charles Fremont. 22 June 1847. John Charles Fremont Papers, Southwest Museum Library, Los Angeles. Manuscript.
---. Letter to Charles Fremont. 23 June 1847. John Charles Fremont Papers, Southwest Museum Library, Los Angeles. Manuscript.
In your in-text citation, distinguish letters written to the same recipient, as in the example above, with the first unique item of information—usually, the date:
(Letter [22 June])
(Letter [23 June])
If your works-cited list includes letters to two different recipients, for example:
Benton, Thomas Hart. Letter to Charles Fremont. 22 June 1847. John Charles Fremont Papers, Southwest Museum Library, Los Angeles. Manuscript.
---. Letter to Jessie Ann Benton Fremont. 24 June 1847. John Charles Fremont Papers, Southwest Museum Library, Los Angeles. Manuscript.
then you would need to include the name of the addressee in your in-text citation:
(Letter to Charles Fremont)
(Letter to Jessie Ann Benton Fremont)
In the above examples, it would be unnecessary to specify “Letter” and the addressee if this information is mentioned in the text.    

Published 7 July 2016

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