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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15 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.

      Liked by 2 people

      • 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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          • fairydancer221 says:

            My school has made it clear in policy that if the citation is incorrect (including errors in the format), it is plagiarism. I have yet to see anyone get in trouble for a major honor code violation over it, but the warning is there. I took a grammar class that made us do a lot of online homework that focused on MLA and APA styles so that we could start internalizing the rules of the style. The whole thing is time consuming, but I think it’s good to spend some time on it, especially within your discipline(s).

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            • Krysta says:

              I think a lot of schools take that approach (at least in theory), though I’ve seen and heard of other schools where policies are looser. After all, if I saw an incorrect citation, it might be because the student was unsure how to cite something or because they were being lazy (or using a citation generator). It wouldn’t have been because they were trying to be dishonest. However, I think many schools also recognize that intent isn’t always recognized outside of school. If someone were provide to faulty citations or submit sloppy work in their workplace, they might end up fired. They might not have the luxury of being called into a meeting where their boss patiently explains to them that they can’t do work last minute and that they ought to have asked for help if they weren’t sure how to do something properly. If the workplace does something that could really affect people (a misprint in a medical or engineering document, say), sloppy work could be devastating not only to the place of employment but also to people’s lives. So schools are, I think, trying to balance fairness with preparation for the “real world.”

              Liked by 1 person

      • fairydancer221 says:

        Purdue OWL also has information for APA, and the APA Style Blog also has valuable information for more unique sources. I liked using citation generators until they started giving me incomplete citations on websites and journal articles. I think the best generator is Son of a Citation Machine.

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        • Krysta says:

          That’s the problem with citation generators. I usually recommend people not use them because they give inaccurate information. In fact, I still see a lot of people using MLA 7 instead of MLA 8 and I wonder if they’re using a bad citation generator. However, I think citation generators can be a good place to start and the you can check them for errors. That might save a little time at least!

          Liked by 1 person

    • fairydancer221 says:

      Krysta is right that it has to do with what is valued in each discipline. MLA is for English, foreign language study, and some other humanities disciplines. APA is used by psychology (it is the P in the abbreviation after all) and other social sciences. AMA is for medical. I don’t know for sure, but I believe Chicago style is used by historians. There are way too many styles to keep track of, but I see how they indicate you’re an insider in the field.

      Liked by 2 people

  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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  3. fairydancer221 says:

    The tips for MLA that you present apply to APA as well. In APA you have to include the year after the author’s name. Both require a DOI or a web address for online sources now.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, many citation styles shares similarities and it’s perhaps not surprising since the same information would be used to track down each types of sources. I’m rather sad they’ve moved back to using web addresses in MLA, though. Originally they removed that requirement because web addresses change, which made sense to me. It also was ridiculous to think most people would want to type in a really long web address, though I suppose most files are received digitally now so at least you can copy and paste!

      Liked by 1 person

      • fairydancer221 says:

        I’m disappointed too about the changes to MLA where it concerns web addresses. I liked MLA 7 for the same reason because I’ve encountered web sources that can’t be easily found through the website. One webpage couldn’t be accessed without clicking a link on another website even though it had its own address. Another was for looking up state statutes, and they’re all listed under the same address, but they all have different screens.

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        • Krysta says:

          Yes! I’ve had similar problems! The web address MIGHT be useful, but it shouldn’t really be necessary if you have all the other information.

          Like

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