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MLA Citation Guide: Welcome!

A brief primer on MLA style for undergraduates.

MLA Citation

The Basics

What is MLA format?

MLA is the Modern Language Association and it sets the standards for composition and citation used by most scholars in the humanities. For students at Allen, this mostly means your English classes (history is also a part of the humanities, but it tends to use Chicago style citation). MLA style has a very large and complex set of rules, but there is no need to panic! Undergraduates will mostly need to familiarize themselves with two things: in-text parenthetical citation and the Works Cited page (this is what MLA style calls a bibliography). The MLA Handbook is currently on its 9th edition. 

Why are citations important?

MLA and other style guides do not exist to make things more difficult for you. They exist to allow readers to trace the sources of information found in a piece of writing. Why is this important? Because the work of scholarship is the work of creating knowledge, and knowledge not built on a solid foundation is less than worthless. Think about when you hear something unbelievable from a friend. If you ask them, “Where did you hear that?” and their response is vague (“that’s just what I heard”) then you may not automatically disbelieve them but you know it’s likely that they’re just sharing rumors. If, instead, they say that they personally experienced something, or that they saw footage of it on television, you will probably have a better opinion of the information. This is, at bottom, all citation seeks to do: create a system of traceability and trust within academic writing. When reading a paper that has correctly used MLA citation, you can quickly and easily find the sources of the information in that paper. This allows you to judge how much you want to trust that information. If a citation is from a major scholarly journal like Science then it’s probably very trustworthy. If a citation comes from a random website with no discernible author then it’s probably not. What kinds of sources a paper uses tells you how much to rely on the information in it. 

Plagiarism and Academic Honesty

Further, citation is a matter of respecting work that others have done. Any time you include information that is not original to you, you must cite the source of that information. The only exception is common knowledge: for example, you wouldn’t have to include a citation for “Joe Biden is the President of the United States.” This is one of the most widely known facts in the world, and you needn’t track down a source for it. However, for everything that is not common knowledge, failure to cite a source constitutes plagiarism. The most serious and obvious form of plagiarism is simply passing off another person’s writing as your own. However, plagiarism isn’t just that. Plagiarism is—intentionally or unintentionally—passing off the words or ideas of others as your own. Even if you’ve changed the wording, if the idea is not yours then not citing it is plagiarism. It is a very serious failure for a student and a frequently career-ending one for a writer or scholar. Aside from the fact that you are stealing other people’s work, you don’t learn to think and write when you plagiarize. You are here at Allen to learn, so don’t cheat yourself. 

AI Usage

ChatGPT and other large language models work by essentially plagiarizing at a mass scale. It and other AI writing apps are Large Language Models, which means that they have been trained on massive amounts of other people’s writing. Despite what you may have heard, AI is not “thinking,” but rather recombining the text that has been fed into it based on instructions in a user prompt. This means that, at a base level, ChatGPT is functionally plagiarism—it has taken the written work of others and presents it as original without attribution or citation. To then take the output of ChatGPT and present it as your own is then a kind of double plagiarism. On top of the fact that you are cheating yourself of the thinking and writing skills you would have developed had you done the work yourself, you are relying on the work of countless others without giving credit.

Parenthetical Citation

The primary mode of citation in MLA format is in-line parenthetical citation. Footnotes and endnotes are not used as much as they are in other systems. A parenthetical citation in MLA format looks like this:

Milkman loves her because “[w]ithout ever leaving the ground, she could fly” (Morrison, 340).

As you can see, a parenthetical citation comes at the end of the sentence but before the period. There are many variations on this format depending on the type of source and the information included in the sentence itself, but this is the basic style. If a reader wants to check on this source, this citation will lead them to your Works Cited page.

Works Cited

A Works Cited page is similar to what you might have seen called a bibliography elsewhere—MLA just uses the term Works Cited to acknowledge that books are not the only texts being cited in contemporary academic life. It is very simply an alphabetical (by author’s last name) list of all the sources you have used in the creation of your paper. The words Works Cited will go at the top and center of the first page, then each entry will be left-aligned and double spaced (with no extra spaces between entries). Here is the tricky part: rather than indenting the first line, as with a paragraph, here you will indent every line after the first, left-aligned one. You must make sure that every source used in your paper is matched by a citation in your Works Cited page. The entry for the source used above in the parenthetical citation section would look like this:

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. Signet, 1978. 

A novel like this is relatively simple to cite; journals and websites can be longer and more complicated. For example, this is what a Works Cited entry for a journal article on Song of Solomon would look like:

Harris, A. Leslie. “Myth as Structure in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” MELUS, vol. 7, no. 3, 

1980, pp. 69–76. JSTOR, Accessed 30 June 2023.

Citation is not just for text-based sources. If you use information taken from something like a YouTube video, you must also include that in your Works Cited. That will look like this:

“Toni Morrison on Trauma, Survival, and Finding Meaning.” YouTube, The Connecticut Forum, 13 

Nov. 2020, Accessed 30 June 2023. 

For further help with any of these citation rules, see a librarian or refer to the Purdue OWL website (