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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

5 Tips for Documenting Sources in a Talk

By Angela Gibson

Speaking at the MLA convention in Philadelphia? Remember a key principle of MLA style: it’s important to credit ideas and quotations borrowed from others. This is true even when delivering an oral presentation. Here are five easy tips:

1. When introducing a source for the first time, provide enough information about it for others to locate it and understand its context. Typically, the author, title, and date of the source are needed. Other publication information can be mentioned if relevant.

2. Use clear and varied phrases to introduce a source that you quote or paraphrase.

3. Conclude quotations clearly, by reestablishing yourself as the speaker (e.g., “In this quotation we see”; “As we can discern from Katz’s statement”; “Jefferson’s words are especially apt because”).

4. Avoid “quote . . . unquote.”

5. If your presentation includes slides or a handout, include a works-cited list for your presentation.

Good luck, and we’ll see you in Philly at the MLA Style Workshop!

Published 3 January 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 …,

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,

Published 4 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 credit the creator of subtitles in my works-cited-list entry?

To credit the creator of subtitles, follow the MLA template of core elements. If you substantively refer to or quote from the subtitles while discussing other aspects of the film, provide the name of the person who created the subtitles, if known, in the “other contributors” slot:

Burge, Stuart, director. Othello. Performances by Laurence Olivier and Robert Lang, Japanese subtitles by Shunji Shimizu, BHE Films, 1965.

If your discussion focuses solely on the subtitles or you quote the subtitles without discussing other aspects of the film, provide the name of the person who provided the subtitles as the author of the subtitles. Then provide a description of the work the translator created (“Japanese subtitles”). Insert the name of the film as the title of the container, the director of the film as an “other” contributor, the name of the movie company as the publisher, and the date:

Shimizu, Shunji. Japanese subtitles. Othello, directed by Stuart Burge, BHE Films, 1965.

Published 29 December 2016

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:

The documentation gave him a “dull but persistent headache” (Curse [3rd ed.] 45).  
In reply, Fustian remarked, “Excuse me?” (“Could” [Portland Gazette] 5).
He repeated, over and over, “Jag förstår inte” (Förbannelsen [translated by Flint] 899).  
“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,

———. “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

What should I do if my source does not include one of the core elements on the MLA template?

As the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook explains, “An element should be omitted from the entry if it’s not relevant to the work being documented” (20). For example, if you are citing the handbook, begin with the title since the book has no author:

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

Published 1 December 2016

How do I cite wall text accompanying artwork at a museum?

To cite wall text, follow the MLA template of core elements. Provide a description of the wall text as the title of the source. This may include the title of the artwork the wall text explains and the artist who created it. If the work was part of an exhibit, include the exhibit’s name as the title of the container, followed by the date (opening and closing), and the museum and city as the location:

Wall text for A Warrior’s Story, Honoring Grandpa Blue Bird, by Lauren Good Day Giago. Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains, 12 Mar.-4 Dec. 2016, National Museum of the American Indian, New York.
Wall text for central Caribbean tripod vessel in the form of a spectacled owl. Céramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, 18 Apr. 2015-Dec. 2017, National Museum of the American Indian, New York.
Wall text for jar with feathered serpent design, National Museum of the American Indian, New York.

For additional resources on citing museum works, see the lesson plan for “Real-Life versus Digital Sources: Documenting a Museum Visit.”

Published 17 November 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,
“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

Can I look at source code to determine a publication date for online materials that don’t publicize a date?

When doing so is useful to readers, specialists often supply missing publication dates, using a range of methods. For example, a medievalist with expertise in paleography might date a manuscript by looking at its handwriting. If there is a compelling reason to supply a missing date of publication by looking at source code, a specialist researcher can follow the guidelines in the MLA Handbook, section 2.6.1, and use brackets and a question mark to indicate that the information is supplied by the specialist and not certain.

Published 18 August 2016

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