Rethinking the Value of MLA

MLA may seem like a type of busy work to some students, a meaningless task to perform so they can please their teacher.  However, MLA is not just a personal teacher preference.  Rather, MLA is specifically set up to perform certain tasks.  And understanding what some of those tasks are may help you to master MLA style.

The Main Reasons to Use MLA

  • It’s a standardized style so readers know automatically what information they are looking at or where to find information.
  • Using the standard helps you to present yourself as an insider in the field.
  • MLA helps authors to give attribution to their sources and to avoid plagiarism.

The Reasons Behind Some of the Details

The in-text citation (Page and Line Numbers)

These tell readers where to find the quote you cite in its original context so they can determine if you quoted it accurately, interpreted it correctly, etc.  This means you should be as specific as possible.  Use a page number (download the PD F version of an article rather than using the HTML version so you have this) if available.  If not, you may see that the paragraphs are numbered–use that number.  If referring to a play in verse (like Shakespeare’s), cite the scene and line numbers.  If quoting a poem, provide the line numbers.  Don’t just give a page number if referring to something with line numbers because that means your reader has to scan the entire page to find the relevant quote.  Make it as easy for them as possible.

THE IN-TEXT CITATION (Authors and Titles)

Author names should appear in the text itself if possible, so you will not normally need to add them to the in-text citation.  However, you may find it necessary to add a title to an in-text citation.  In this case, you shorten the title if necessary.  Writing a full title of “The Disparities Between Chickens and Fish as Examined Through the Lenses of Several Authors and Interspersed with Poetic Interludes” makes your text look sloppy.  Provide enough information for the reader to find this title in your Works Cited.  “Disparities Between Chickens and Fish” is sufficient.

The Works Cited

This should be in alphabetical order so your readers can find sources easily.  Use the rule of “making it easy on your readers” to determine how to handle situations that you might feel the guidebooks on MLA do not sufficiently cover.  For instance, if you think they will likely look for the writer name while looking for a graphic novel, lead with that.  However, if you were prioritizing the artist in your paper, you might lead with the artist name.  Also keep in mind that your in-text citations and Works Cited should match.  That is, don’t refer to “(Writer 99)” but lead off with the artist in your Works Cited entry.

The Header

Your last name and page number are meant to be on the top of each page so that if the pages are separated they can easily be identified and reordered.

Conclusion

MLA is not taught by instructors simply because they are oddly obsessed with the details of how your paper looks.  Rather, the details perform specific functions.  Readers expect proper formatting because this formatting allows them not only to check a work for accuracy but also to use that work to find other interesting or relevant sources.  

Further, it’s important that students gain an eye for detail and an ability for correct formatting because formatting (even if not MLA) will likely play a future role in many individuals’ lives.  From sending in a resume that includes all the relevant information in an expected manner to submitting manuscripts to publishing agents or submitting articles to academic journals, students will find that formatting affects their chances of professional success.  Sending in a document correctly formatted presents the individual as conscientious and easy to work with.

Finally, many readers are very concerned with stylistic issues.  Even though the content of a document should be more important than how it looks, many people equate surface features with intelligence.  That is, a paper that is written with correct grammar and looks like a professionally-formatted piece will be rated higher by some readers than a paper that is not written with correct grammar and is not formatted the way the readers in the field expect.  This may not seem fair or right, but you can use it to your advantage by taking the few moments necessary to format your documents correctly.

MLA matters.  More than you might think.

Do you have insights on how other citation styles work?  Share with us your citation insights and preferences below!

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5 thoughts on “Rethinking the Value of MLA

  1. TeacherofYA says:

    Seriously, this would have come in handy last semester. I hate MLA. But it’s easier than some other styles of formatting, like ALA.
    And what’s with all the different types of citation, huh? Chicago style, and the other one I forget…why can’t there just be one citation style that’s uniform across the board? 🤔😩

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    • Krysta says:

      I thought about doing a post on different citation styles, but I’d have to research them more! They’re often different because of the values of the disciplines they’re being used in. So some might emphasize dates because they’re more concerned about the relevance and timeliness of sources. MLA tends to emphasize names instead (though I like to provide dates in the text anyway). I like MLA, too, because it was meant to be freely available to the public–truly accessible. So you can go online and use something like Purdue OWL to find the information you need, without having to buy a handbook.

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      • TeacherofYA says:

        Exactly! And Citation Machine is my best friend in making sure mine come out correctly since the styles are constantly changing. Luckily I had Profs who were more concerned that we use the MLA at all instead of being picky how it was presented…so I hope my citations were good, but I’ll never know for sure. I did have the help of Purdue Owl but some sources are so hard to cite!

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        • Krysta says:

          I think most instructors would point out if the citations were incomplete or inaccurate since inaccurate citations can appear like plagiarism or academic misconduct if missing or not providing enough information for the readers to find the source. Even if they don’t care, they would be aware that a student might get into trouble in other classes with other instructors. I admit, however, that I’ve seen a lot of papers and I have yet to see a student use MLA correctly throughout the entire work, so perhaps some instructors have simply given up marking all the inaccuracies! It would be admittedly time-consuming for anyone to do so.

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  2. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    It took me a while to figure out what this was about- I guess I’m further (mentally) from uni than I thought 😉 I mostly used MLA at uni for English- though I was joint honours and don’t remember the other styles I had to use. Usually the only difference was footnoted citations as opposed to in text- I think I recall MLA being easier… but as I said it feels so long ago! I get that it has its place (even if I personally found it a bit of a pain 😉 ) At the very least, using it so often drilled into me the importance of citing sources, which is always a good thing.

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