MLA Citation

MLA Citation refers to conventions for citing sources according to MLA Handbook, 9th Edition. Even if you plan to use an MLA Format Citation Generator, you can benefit from understanding the basics of MLA citation. Being conversant in MLA in text citation is a basic literacy in the knowledge economy.
a protestor's sign reads "citation needed" a protestor's sign reads "citation needed"

What is MLA Citation?

MLA Citation refers to the guidelines for citing sources according to the MLA Handbook, 9th Edition.

  • MLA refers to the Modern Language Association, an international organization that informs the discourse practices of teachers, scholars, and students in the humanities
  • The 9th Edition is the current, official handbook of the MLA.

MLA Citation Format provides writers with two major ways to attribute sources:

  1. in the actual text using a parenthetical system 
  2. at the end of a text on a Works Cited Page.

MLA In Text Citation vs. MLA Works Cited

The bibliographical information (e.g., who is the author? publisher? and so on) that MLA requires for in text citation differs from the bibliographic information MLA requires for Works Cited Pages:

In Text Citation
See the article below to explore creative ways to introduce and vet sources inside the body of your paper in MLA citation style.

Works Cited Page
See MLA Works Cited Page for a summary of MLA’s guidelines for constructing a list of references at the end of your paper.

Synonyms

MLA Citation is also known as

  • MLA In Text Citation
  • MLA Citation Format
  • MLA Format Citation
  • In text Citation MLA
  • MLA Style
  • Parenthetical citation

Related Concepts: Annotated Bibliography; Copyright & Writing; Intellectual PropertyPage Design; Plagiarism; Rhetorical Analysis; Textual Research Methods


Why Does MLA Citation Matter?

Writers, speakers, and knowledge workers in humanities-related disciplines use MLA Citation to acknowledge when they are

  1. summarizing
  2. paraphrasing or
  3. quoting information.

Words matter. Ideas matter. People want to be acknowledged when others use their ideas, whether those ideas are expressed in conversations or texts. Words are a form of intellectual property, and they are governed by copyright.

Failure to introduce sources properly or cite sources accurately may lead your readers to question your professionalism and critical literacy competencies. Correct MLA In text citation is a signal of professionalism across workplace and academic contexts. Lack of correct usage suggests a failure to attend to detail or a lack of respect of intellectual property and copyright policies, conventions, and laws.

Beyond being required by law and academic policies governing academic honesty and integrity, MLA citation matters

  • in school settings:
    • teachers want to see that students can accurately summarize information and introduce it in ways that support rather than detract from your purpose, voice, and ethos.
  • in workplace settings:

Even if you use an MLA Format Citation Generator to compile a Works Cited page, you still need to know how to introduce sources into the body of your text in ways that support rather than weaken your thesis, research question, hypothesis.

One trend noted by corpus linguists, stylists, and investigators in Writing Studies is that really inexperienced writers are sometimes unsure of how to

Knowledge of correct MLA Citation

  • helps you identify citation errors in your work and the work of others
  • empowers you to write your own citations, which can be less time consuming than using a citation tool.

MLA Format Citation

The MLA Handbook, 9th Edition provides a number of different ways to format in-text citations, depending on the bibliographical information available about the source.

Most generally, a standard MLA parenthetical citation typically includes

  1. the author’s last name
  2. the page number of the source if available.

So, if you were quoting or paraphrasing from the following source, a peer-reviewed research article,

then your in text reference needs to reference Martyna–the author’s last name–and page number. For example,

  • In 1978, Wendy Martyna, a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford, argued that there were three major problems with using the generic he to refer to both men and women: (1) ambiguity (2) exclusiveness. amd (3) inequity (131).
  • Using “he” as a “generically human term” creates (1) ambiguity . . . (2) exclusiveness . . . (3) inequity” (Martyna 131).

Note, as well, that if you are summarizing an entire text as opposed to paraphrasing a particular passage or quoting a particular word or group of sentences, then you just list the author’s last name in the parenthetical citation.

MLA Format Templates for Special Circumstances

Because many sources have more than one author and no page numbers (particularly electronic sources), the basic format discussed above won’t always work. See the chart below for common templates for MLA in text citations.

MLA Format TemplateExplanationExample
Citing a source with no authorCite the next item in the bibliographic entry–typically the title. Shorter works should be in quotation marks, and longer works should be italicized.(“Transparency”)
(Encyclopedia of Rare Birds)
Citing a source with no page numberCite the author’s last name (if available. If not, cite the title)(Baron)
(“Transparency”)
Citing a source with a long titleWhen citing a title (for sources with no author), truncate the title down to the first few main words“Gender Affirmation through Correct Pronoun Usage: Development and Validation of Transgender Women’s Importance of Pronouns Scale”

“Gender Affirmation”
Citing a source with two authorsList both last names in the parenthetical citation with “and” between them  (Ahmaud and Jones)

Citing a source with more than two authors
Include the name of the first author listed (NOT the first alphabetically) along with “et al” (from the Latin “and others”).(Xiao et al)

Citing multiple works by the same author
Include the author’s last name followed by a comma, and the title(Baron, “Pronoun Showdown”)

Citing two different authors with the same last name
Include the author’s last name and first initial followed by a period (or first name if the first initial is also the same).  D. Smith   J. Smith    

Citing information quoted by your source
Include the last name of the original source, the words “qtd. in” and your source’s last name.(Lylye qtd. in Baron)
Citing Poetry
Include the line number(s) in your parenthetical citation. Line numbers should be preceded by the word line or lines.
(lines 7-8)
Citing Shakespeare
Include the act, scene, and line numbers and separate each with a period
(3.3.27-28)  
Citing the Bible
Begin with the italicized version of the bible you’re referencing (which will be the first item in your bibliographic entry), followed by the book name and the verse number.  
(New International Version, Mark 1.3-4)  

Citing a tweet or social media post
Use the author’s handle or screen name(@MoteMarineLab)  

MLA In Text Citation Templates

If you have included any of the bibliographical information ordinarily included in a parenthetical citation (e.g., the authors’ names) or some information about the authors) when you first introduce a source, you do not need to repeat that information in the parenthetical citation. After all, brevity is a major textual attribute of effective academic and workplace writing.

ScenarioExampleExplanation
Citing a source that you’ve fully introduced; no page numberAccording to journalist and Harvard University foreign policy scholar Fareed Zakaria, “Russia’s actions in Ukraine are perfectly predictable.Because the source has been fully introduced in the signal phrase and there is no page number to cite, a parenthetical citation is not needed.  
Citing a source that you have not introduced, no page numberIt’s notable that “Putin describes Ukraine as inseparable from Russia in much the same way France described Algeria in the 1950s” (Zakaria).  In this example the author must be named in the parenthetical citation because he is not named in the signal phrase.  
Citing a source that you’ve introduced; with page number
According to journalist and Harvard University foreign policy scholar Fareed Zakaria, “Russia’s actions in Ukraine are perfectly predictable”(A1).
   
Because the source is fully introduced, only the page number needs to be included in the parenthetical citation.  
Citing a source that you have not introduced; with page numberIt’s notable that “Putin describes Ukraine as inseparable from Russia in much the same way France described Algeria in the 1950s” (Zakaria A1).  Because the author isn’t named in the signal phrase, the parenthetical citation must include the author’s last name and page number  

**The same rules apply to summary and paraphrase. You should introduce your sources and cite them even if you are not using their exact language.

Steps for Using and Citing Sources

The best way to master MLA citation is to study it in the wild–to engage in a rhetorical analysis of others’ citation practices.

The ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries) 

From the perspective of In both school and work settings, MLA citation is governed by information literacy perspectives and practices:

There are four critical steps to using outside evidence effectively.

  1. Introduce your source
  2. Integrate your evidence
  3. Quote your source
  4. Cite your source

Step 1: Introduce your source

Before you introduce your evidence, it’s important to contextualize the evidence.

When writing about literature, tell your readers who is speaking to whom about what. Orient them to what is happening in the story. 

  • Example: Upon hearing that Romeo has murdered her cousin, Juliet exclaims,  “Oh serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!”

When writing about non-fiction, tell your readers where the information came from. Where was it published? Who wrote it? What makes the writer credible?

  • Example: The generic “he” is described by Dr. Dennis Baron, professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois and author of What’s Your Pronoun, as “the grammatical equivalent of manspreading.”

In subsequent uses of the same source, you don’t have to fully introduce your source, but you still need to contextualize the quote for your reader.

  • Example: The grammatical inconvenience of this missing part of speech resulted in calls for a gender-neutral singular pronouns. Baron notes that  the singular “they” first appeared in writing in 1370 and in 1792, a Scottish economist suggested adopting “ou” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
  • Example: After describing the natural diet and habitat of the flamingo and delineating its revered place in religion and myth, Price notes that New Englanders have “reproduced [the flamingo] and brightened it and sent it wading across an inland sea of grass.”

Step 2: Integrate your evidence

When using direct evidence in academic essays, writers shouldn’t ever start a sentence with a quote. Instead, the quote should be smoothly integrated into your sentence. There are three methods for embedding evidence:

Dialogue Introduction:

  • Use some version of “he says” or “she says,” followed by a comma and a quote (the quote needs to be a complete sentence).
    • Correct: Price says, “Americans in temperate New England reproduced it, brightened it, and sent it wading across an inland see of grass.”
    • Incorrect: Price says, “wading across an inland see of grass.”
  • Alternatives to “says”: admits, emphasizes, responds, agrees, insists, replies, argues, notes, suggests, asserts, observes, thinks, believes, points out, writes, claims, reasons, denies, compares, refutes, confirms, rejects, contends, reports, declares

Introduction with a colon:

  • Introduce the quote with a complete sentence, followed by a colon and quote (the quote needs to be a complete sentence).
    • Correct: Price ends the piece by noting the unnatural nature of the decorative flamingo trend: “Americans in temperate New England reproduced it, brightened it, and sent it wading across an inland see of grass.”
    • Incorrect: Price ends the piece by noting: “reproduced it, brightened it, and sent it wading across an inland see of grass.”

Narrative Introduction

  • Smoothly embed key words and sections of a quote into your own language. The key here is that if you are reading it aloud, it should be totally seamless. If you were to read it aloud, it would not be clear to listeners where your language ends and the writer’s language begins.
    • Correct: Price notes that the flamingos stand out “loudly” as they are “sent wading” through the lawns of “temperate New England.”
    • Incorrect: Price says “loudly” and “wading across an inland sea of grass.”

Step 3: Quote your source

When incorporating quotes from outside sources, it’s important to quote the language of the original source exactly. However, sometimes quotes need to be adapted for space or clarity. When making adaptations it is essential that

1) the changes are noted using brackets or ellipses

2) the changes do not alter the meaning of the original quote

At times, quotes will need to be adapted by pronouns to more specific nouns or vice versa for clarity or to avoid redundancy.

  • After Mr. Smith spent all day spying on his neighbors, [he] was dismayed to have discovered nothing.”
  • In response to the unwarranted attack, “[Mallory] launched into a passionate defense of herself.”

Particularly when integrating narratively, it might also be necessary to change verb tense to conform with the grammar of your sentences.

  • When Gene “[jounces] the limb,” Finny crashes onto the muddy riverbank below and “[shatters] his leg.”  

Finally, you may find that you want to omit non-essential information from the middle of a quote. In these cases, use ellipses (…) to note where content has been omitted. Use three dots for brief omissions, and four dots if a sentence or more has been removed.

  • Morgan asserts, “The Russian sailor as a Harlequin thus is an archetype for Marlow’s descent into the heart of darkness…but where Marlow returns home transformed, the Russian sailor remains behind, slipping back into the darkness” (37). 

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t ever use ellipses to note when something has been removed at the start or end of a quote. Except in the unlikely event that you are quoting the very first or very last line of a text, readers can always assume that something preceded or followed quoted material, so ellipses to start or end a quote are superfluous.

Step 4: Cite your source

As explained in detail above, the last step when incorporating outside evidence is to credit the original source via citation. Remember to include the first item listed in the bibliographic entry (author’s last name or source title) along with a page number if there is one.

In-Text Citation Exercises

Look at the sentences below, each of which contains an incorrectly formatted in-text citation. Identify the errors in each.

  1. The parlor metaphor of writing describes writing as entering into a conversation, as in arriving late and a parlor and talking to guests who have been there long before you have (7).
  2. In “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love,” Jim Corder explains that “Everyone is an argument.” (1)
  3. The narrator “and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?” (Collins line 4).
  4. The opening lines of the novel are “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” (Nabokov, 1).
  5. he opening lines of the novel are “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” (Lolita 1).

Key

  1. The citation identifies the page number but not the source.
  2. The punctuation should be outside the parenthetical citation, not inside the quote.
  3. There should not be any punctuation after the citation when the quote ends with a question mark.
  4. There should not be a comma between the author and page number.
  5. The citation should include the author’s last name, not the book title.