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URLs: Some Practical Advice

By Angela Gibson

The new MLA Handbook recommends including URLs in works-cited-list entries for online works, but it also notes their drawbacks: they can cause clutter, become obsolete, and have limited use in a print work. URLs may also be inaccessible when the pages to which they refer are behind a paywall. Although writers can avoid these problems by following the handbook’s recommendation to use permalinks and DOIs when such information is available, URLs are often the only option. In this post, I offer commonsense guidelines on treating URLs in works-cited-list entries.

First, it is important to keep in mind that documentation has two main goals: it should testify to the veracity of your research and provide readers with information about your source that allows them to retrace your steps. Ensuring the enduring availability and retrievability of a source is not the primary objective of documentation, even though the Internet allows for the retrieval of online works referred to in other online works. You would document a performance, even though your readers can’t attend it. Similarly, you would document a letter in a private collection, even though it might not be accessible to your readers. By doing so, you are vouching, “I was here.”

When deciding whether and how to include a URL in a works-cited-list entry, you should balance the goals of testifying and retracing. A good litmus test might be this: if your works-cited-list entry adequately achieves the primary goal of vouching for your work, then ask yourself whether providing a URL will help readers wishing to retrace your footsteps.

Basic Rule of Thumb

The MLA Handbook encourages writers to list the URL that they see in their browsers unless the source identifies a DOI or permalink associated with it.

Inaccessible URLs

If the URL leads to a source that is behind a paywall or defunct by the time you submit or publish your work, then retrieving becomes difficult or even impossible, but readers may still glean information from the URL that helps them understand the path of your research. For example, the root of the URL may lead to a home page where readers can log in with their own credentials, pay to see the source, evaluate the credibility of the site that published the source, or locate the source under a new URL.

Ridiculously Long URLs

So you have a ten-page-long URL. Now what? As Russell W. Grooms writes, the MLA Handbook “values concise citations and one of its guiding principles is, ‘Make your documentation useful to readers.’ How useful is it to my reader to have six lines of random letters and numbers at the end of every citation?” Indeed, when URLs are so long that they become unreadable, truncating them will be necessary. (Omitting the URL altogether, however, may not make it clear that the source you are citing appears online.)

The question is, How long is too long? If the URL compromises the readability of your entry, then it is too long. Thus judgment is called for, since whether a URL hinders the readability of the works-cited-list entry will depend on the entry. The length of the entry is one factor: if a URL is several lines longer than the rest of the entry, it will run the show. The placement of the URL is another factor: a URL at the end of an entry generally makes the entry easier to read than does a URL that appears before optional information that is appended to the entry. As a general guideline, a URL running more than three full lines is likely to interfere with the readability of the entry.

Guidelines on Truncating

URLs are composed of a few basic components:

  • the protocol (basically anything before //)
  • the double forward slash
  • the host (which encompasses the domain–like World Wide Web, or www)
  • the path
URL diagram

In addition, sometimes file-specific information or a query string is appended:

https://style.mla.org/files/2016/04/practice-template.pdf
https://www.mla.org/search/?query=pmla
The MLA Handbook advises writers to truncate a URL in one specific way (by omitting the protocol and //). If you need to shorten it further, retain the host, which will allow readers to evaluate the site and search for the source.

Guidelines on Breaking

As long as the URL is accurately recorded, writers of unpublished material should not worry about how a URL breaks. To ensure that a URL is accurately reproduced, never introduce a hyphen or space in it. Note that the freely available formatting guidelines on this site advise writers to turn off their word processors’ automatic hyphenation features for just this reason.

Professionally typeset publications in fixed formats, like print or PDF, normally follow rigorous conventions for breaking URLs. Publishers vary in their practices. In its own professionally typeset publications, the MLA breaks URLs before a period and before or after any other punctuation or symbol (e.g., /, //, _, @). We do not break URLs after a hyphen in such publications, to avoid ambiguity.

Work Cited

Grooms, Russell W. Comment in response to “FW: Chicago Style Citation Question” thread. Infolit, 6 Sept. 2016, 20:02:16, lists.ala.org/sympa/arc/infolit/2016-09/msg00005.html.

Published 2 November 2016

Do I include a publisher in works-cited-list entries for repositories and databases?

No. As the MLA Handbook notes, “A Web site not involved in producing the works it makes available” lacks a publisher (42). Examples include sites like JSTOR and YouTube that aggregate works from other sources.

Published 17 March 2017

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

When should the name of the library from which I have retrieved my source be included in a works-cited-list entry?

Include the name of the library in the publisher slot on the MLA template of core elements if the library is the publisher of the work or in the location slot if you are citing a unique work available only at the library, like a manuscript in an archive:

Baron, Sabrina Alcorn, et al., editors. Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. U of Massachusetts P / Center for the Book, Library of Congress, 2007.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Circa 1400-10, British Library, London, Harley MS 7334.

Published 15 March 2017

How do I cite a book for which no organization is named as the publisher?

As noted on page 42 of the MLA Handbook, if the book is published by its author or editor, omit the publisher’s name from the works-cited-list entry:

Hocking, Amanda. Fate. 2010.

If the publisher is unknown—as in the example below—follow the guidelines on page 20 of the handbook: “An element should be omitted from the entry if it’s not relevant to the work being documented.”

Cummings, E. E. The Enormous Room. 2017.

Keep in mind, though, that a source whose publisher is unknown may not be reliable. Established publishers generally ensure that the texts they publish are accurate versions of the author’s work. A source from an unknown publisher could be missing text or contain inaccurate text, so if a version of the source is available from an established publisher, consider using that version instead.

Published 9 March 2017

How do I indicate that I am citing an editorial?

If the editorial is titled, it is not necessary to indicate in a works-cited-list entry that the work you are citing is an editorial:
Editorial Board. “How to Tell Truth from Fiction in the Age of Fake News.” Chicago Tribune, 21 Nov. 2016, www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-fake-news-facebook-edit-1120-md-20161118-story.html.
If the editorial is either unsigned or signed by an individual and you want your reader to know that the piece is an editorial rather than a news article, you can refer to the work as an editorial in your discussion, or you can include the word “Editorial” as an optional element at the end of the entry:
Gergen, David. “A Question of Values.” US News and World Report, 11 Feb. 2001, p. 72. Editorial.
“It’s Subpoena Time.” The New York Times, late ed., 8 June 2007, p. A28. Editorial.

Published 8 March 2017

Do I need to include the name of the library from which I retrieved an e-book?

No. The library from which you retrieved an e-book should not be specified in your works-cited-list entry.

For guidelines on citing an e-book in MLA style, see our earlier post.

Published

Where in a works-cited-list entry should the section of a newspaper be inserted?

If you need to specify the section of a newspaper, include it as part of the location element according to the MLA template of core elements:

Soloski, Alexis. “The Time Has Come to Play Othello.” The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2016, Arts and Leisure sec., p. 5.

Published 7 March 2017

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

When translating from a language that does not use roman characters, like Chinese, do I include the original characters or a transliteration? And how do I alphabetize titles of nonroman works?

In its publications, the MLA prefers to give the original characters (script) and a translation for titles and quotations; it also includes transliteration in some of its publications, especially those geared for nonspecialists. Nowadays all three elements can be useful to readers searching for a source on the Internet. Aside from this practical reason, we feel that using the original characters shows a respect for the foreign language that once was generally not shown in academic work.

In the text of your essay, include the elements in whatever order makes sense in your discussion. For example, there is more than one way to present an Arabic term:

matn (متن; “substance”)
متن (matn; “substance”)
substance (متن; matn)

In the list of works cited, titles of works in languages that do not use roman characters should appear in this order: original characters, then transliteration (if included), then translation. If all the entries under an author’s name are in the foreign language, alphabetize according to the rules of the language (list 1). If some of the entries are in the foreign language and some in English, provide transliterations and alphabetize by transliteration (list 2).

Works-Cited List 1: All Russian Entries

Šklovskij, Viktor. Воскрешение слова. Teorija literatury, philolog.petrsu.ru/filolog/shklov.htm.
———. Жизнь художника Федотова [The Life of the Artist Fedotov]. Izdatelʹstvo detskoy literatury, 1936.
———. За и против: Заметки о Достоевском [For and Against: Remarks about Dostoevsky]. Bookmate, bookmate.com/reader/heQXMFr9.
———. О теории прозы [On the Theory of Prose]. Ardis Publishers, 1929.
———. Ход коня: Сборник статей [The Knight’s Move: A Collection of Articles]. Gelikon, 1923.
 

Works-Cited List 2: Mix of Russian and English Entries

Shklovsky, Victor. Ход коня: Сборник статей [Khod konja; Sbornik statej]. Gelikon, 1923.
———. Mayakovsky and His Circle. Translated by L. Feilier, Pluto Press, 1974.
———. О теории прозы [O teorii prozy]. Ardis Publishers, 1929.
———. Theory of Prose. Translated by Benjamin Sher, Dalkey Archive Press, 1998.
———. Воскрешение слова [Voskreshenie slova]. Teorija literatury, philolog.petrsu.ru/filolog/shklov.htm.
———. За и против: Заметки о Достоевском [Za i protiv: Zametki o Dostoevskom]. Bookmate, bookmate.com/reader/heQXMFr9.
———. Жизнь художника Федотова [Zhiznʹ khudozhnika Fedotova]. Izdatelʹstvo detskoy literatury, 1936.
———. Zoo; or, Letters Not about Love. Translated by Richard Sheldon, Cornell UP, 1971.

Note that we provide not the original script but only a transliteration for the name of a person or publisher.

Published 8 February 2017

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