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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


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:
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 normally follow rigorous conventions for breaking URLs. Publishers vary in their practices. In its own 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, 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,

Published 2 November 2016

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 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,
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,

Published 2 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

When should I include an access date for an online work?

The eighth edition of the MLA Handbook does not require that you include a date of access—the date on which you consulted a work—when you cite an online work from a reliable, stable source. However, you may include an access date as an optional element if it will be useful to others. (See the MLA Handbook, eighth edition, pp. 50–53, for more on optional elements.)

Including an access date for an online work may be especially useful if the work lacks a publication date or if you suspect that the work may be altered or removed, which is more common with informal or self-published works. Place the access date at the end of the entry:

“Orhan Pamuk: Un écrivain turc à succès.” Orhan Pamuk Site, İletişm Publishing, Accessed 25 Oct. 2015.


How do I cite a work streamed through an app?

If you access a work through an app, consider the app a version according to the MLA template of core elements. The version may be a number, such as 1.3.1, as in the first example, from page 39 of the MLA Handbook. Or it may be a name, such as Netflix, as in the second example below; add the word app if clarification is needed:

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello. Edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, version 1.3.1, Luminary Digital Media, 2013.
The Crown. Netflix app, Left Bank Pictures / Sony Pictures Television Production UK, 2016.

Published 8 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

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