MLA In-Text Citations: The Basics
MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities. This resource, updated to reflect the MLA Handbook (8th ed.), offers examples for the general format of MLA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the Works Cited page.
Contributors: Tony Russell, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Russell Keck, Joshua M. Paiz, Michelle Campbell, Rodrigo Rodríguez-Fuentes, Daniel P. Kenzie, Susan Wegener, Maryam Ghafoor, Purdue OWL Staff
Last Edited: 2017-10-23 08:53:38
Guidelines for referring to the works of others in your text using MLA style are covered in chapter 6 of the MLA Handbook and in chapter 7 of the MLA Style Manual. Both books provide extensive examples, so it's a good idea to consult them if you want to become even more familiar with MLA guidelines or if you have a particular reference question.
Basic in-text citation rules
In MLA style, referring to the works of others in your text is done by using what is known as parenthetical citation. This method involves placing relevant source information in parentheses after a quote or a paraphrase.
- The source information required in a parenthetical citation depends (1.) upon the source medium (e.g. Print, Web, DVD) and (2.) upon the source’s entry on the Works Cited (bibliography) page.
- Any source information that you provide in-text must correspond to the source information on the Works Cited page. More specifically, whatever signal word or phrase you provide to your readers in the text, must be the first thing that appears on the left-hand margin of the corresponding entry in the Works Cited List.
In-text citations: Author-page style
MLA format follows the author-page method of in-text citation. This means that the author's last name and the page number(s) from which the quotation or paraphrase is taken must appear in the text, and a complete reference should appear on your Works Cited page. The author's name may appear either in the sentence itself or in parentheses following the quotation or paraphrase, but the page number(s) should always appear in the parentheses, not in the text of your sentence. For example:
Wordsworth stated that Romantic poetry was marked by a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (263).
Romantic poetry is characterized by the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" (Wordsworth 263).
Wordsworth extensively explored the role of emotion in the creative process (263).
Both citations in the examples above, (263) and (Wordsworth 263), tell readers that the information in the sentence can be located on page 263 of a work by an author named Wordsworth. If readers want more information about this source, they can turn to the Works Cited page, where, under the name of Wordsworth, they would find the following information:
Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Oxford UP, 1967.
In-text citations for print sources with known author
For Print sources like books, magazines, scholarly journal articles, and newspapers, provide a signal word or phrase (usually the author’s last name) and a page number. If you provide the signal word/phrase in the sentence, you do not need to include it in the parenthetical citation.
Human beings have been described by Kenneth Burke as "symbol-using animals" (3).
Human beings have been described as "symbol-using animals" (Burke 3).
These examples must correspond to an entry that begins with Burke, which will be the first thing that appears on the left-hand margin of an entry in the Works Cited:
Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
In-text citations for print sources by a corporate author
When a source has a corporate author, it is acceptable to use the name of the corporation followed by the page number for the in-text citation. You should also use abbreviations (e.g., nat'l for national) where appropriate, so as to avoid interrupting the flow of reading with overly long parenthetical citations.
In-text citations for print sources with no known author
When a source has no known author, use a shortened title of the work instead of an author name. Place the title in quotation marks if it's a short work (such as an article) or italicize it if it's a longer work (e.g. plays, books, television shows, entire Web sites) and provide a page number if it is available.
We see so many global warming hotspots in North America likely because this region has "more readily accessible climatic data and more comprehensive programs to monitor and study environmental change . . ." ("Impact of Global Warming").
In this example, since the reader does not know the author of the article, an abbreviated title of the article appears in the parenthetical citation which corresponds to the full name of the article which appears first at the left-hand margin of its respective entry in the Works Cited. Thus, the writer includes the title in quotation marks as the signal phrase in the parenthetical citation in order to lead the reader directly to the source on the Works Cited page. The Works Cited entry appears as follows:
"The Impact of Global Warming in North America." Global Warming: Early Signs. 1999. http://www.climatehotmap.org/. Accessed 23 Mar. 2009.
We'll learn how to make a Works Cited page in a bit, but right now it's important to know that parenthetical citations and Works Cited pages allow readers to know which sources you consulted in writing your essay, so that they can either verify your interpretation of the sources or use them in their own scholarly work.
Author-page citation for classic and literary works with multiple editions
Page numbers are always required, but additional citation information can help literary scholars, who may have a different edition of a classic work like Marx and Engels's The Communist Manifesto. In such cases, give the page number of your edition (making sure the edition is listed in your Works Cited page, of course) followed by a semicolon, and then the appropriate abbreviations for volume (vol.), book (bk.), part (pt.), chapter (ch.), section (sec.), or paragraph (par.). For example:
Marx and Engels described human history as marked by class struggles (79; ch. 1).
Citing authors with same last names
Sometimes more information is necessary to identify the source from which a quotation is taken. For instance, if two or more authors have the same last name, provide both authors' first initials (or even the authors' full name if different authors share initials) in your citation. For example:
Although some medical ethicists claim that cloning will lead to designer children (R. Miller 12), others note that the advantages for medical research outweigh this consideration (A. Miller 46).
Citing a work by multiple authors
For a source with two authors, list the authors’ last names in the text or in the parenthetical citation:
Best and Marcus argue that one should read a text for what it says on its surface, rather than looking for some hidden meaning (9).
The authors claim that surface reading looks at what is “evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts” (Best and Marcus 9).
Corresponding works cited entry:
Best, David, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations, vol. 108, no. 1, Fall 2009, pp. 1-21. JSTOR, doi:10.1525/rep.2009.108.1.1
For a source with three or more authors, list only the first author’s last name, and replace the additional names with et al.
According to Franck et al., “Current agricultural policies in the U.S. are contributing to the poor health of Americans” (327).
The authors claim that one cause of obesity in the United States is government-funded farm subsidies (Franck et al. 327).
Corresponding works cited entry:
Franck, Caroline, et al. “Agricultural Subsidies and the American Obesity Epidemic.” American Journal of Preventative Medicine, vol. 45, no. 3, Sept. 2013, pp. 327-333.
Citing multiple works by the same author
If you cite more than one work by a particular author, include a shortened title for the particular work from which you are quoting to distinguish it from the others. Put short titles of books in italics and short titles of articles in quotation marks.
Citing two articles by the same author:
Lightenor has argued that computers are not useful tools for small children ("Too Soon" 38), though he has acknowledged elsewhere that early exposure to computer games does lead to better small motor skill development in a child's second and third year ("Hand-Eye Development" 17).
Citing two books by the same author:
Murray states that writing is "a process" that "varies with our thinking style" (Write to Learn 6). Additionally, Murray argues that the purpose of writing is to "carry ideas and information from the mind of one person into the mind of another" (A Writer Teaches Writing 3).
Additionally, if the author's name is not mentioned in the sentence, you would format your citation with the author's name followed by a comma, followed by a shortened title of the work, followed, when appropriate, by page numbers:
Visual studies, because it is such a new discipline, may be "too easy" (Elkins, "Visual Studies" 63).
Citing multivolume works
If you cite from different volumes of a multivolume work, always include the volume number followed by a colon. Put a space after the colon, then provide the page number(s). (If you only cite from one volume, provide only the page number in parentheses.)
. . . as Quintilian wrote in Institutio Oratoria (1: 14-17).
Citing the Bible
In your first parenthetical citation, you want to make clear which Bible you're using (and underline or italicize the title), as each version varies in its translation, followed by book (do not italicize or underline), chapter and verse. For example:
Ezekiel saw "what seemed to be four living creatures," each with faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (New Jerusalem Bible, Ezek. 1.5-10).
If future references employ the same edition of the Bible you’re using, list only the book, chapter, and verse in the parenthetical citation.
Citing indirect sources
Sometimes you may have to use an indirect source. An indirect source is a source cited in another source. For such indirect quotations, use "qtd. in" to indicate the source you actually consulted. For example:
Ravitch argues that high schools are pressured to act as "social service centers, and they don't do that well" (qtd. in Weisman 259).
Note that, in most cases, a responsible researcher will attempt to find the original source, rather than citing an indirect source.
Citing non-print or sources from the Internet
With more and more scholarly work being posted on the Internet, you may have to cite research you have completed in virtual environments. While many sources on the Internet should not be used for scholarly work (reference the OWL's Evaluating Sources of Information resource), some Web sources are perfectly acceptable for research. When creating in-text citations for electronic, film, or Internet sources, remember that your citation must reference the source in your Works Cited.
Sometimes writers are confused with how to craft parenthetical citations for electronic sources because of the absence of page numbers, but often, these sorts of entries do not require any sort of parenthetical citation at all. For electronic and Internet sources, follow the following guidelines:
- Include in the text the first item that appears in the Work Cited entry that corresponds to the citation (e.g. author name, article name, website name, film name).
- You do not need to give paragraph numbers or page numbers based on your Web browser’s print preview function.
- Unless you must list the Web site name in the signal phrase in order to get the reader to the appropriate entry, do not include URLs in-text. Only provide partial URLs such as when the name of the site includes, for example, a domain name, like CNN.com or Forbes.com as opposed to writing out http://www.cnn.com or http://www.forbes.com.
Miscellaneous non-print sources
Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo stars Herzog's long-time film partner, Klaus Kinski. During the shooting of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog and Kinski were often at odds, but their explosive relationship fostered a memorable and influential film.
During the presentation, Jane Yates stated that invention and pre-writing are areas of rhetoric that need more attention.
In the two examples above “Herzog” from the first entry and “Yates” from the second lead the reader to the first item each citation’s respective entry on the Works Cited page:
Herzog, Werner, dir. Fitzcarraldo. Perf. Klaus Kinski. Filmverlag der Autoren, 1982.
Yates, Jane. "Invention in Rhetoric and Composition." Gaps Addressed: Future Work in Rhetoric and Composition, CCCC, Palmer House Hilton, 2002.
One online film critic stated that Fitzcarraldo "has become notorious for its near-failure and many obstacles" (Taylor, “Fitzcarraldo”).
The Purdue OWL is accessed by millions of users every year. Its "MLA Formatting and Style Guide" is one of the most popular resources (Russell et al.).
In the first example, the writer has chosen not to include the author name in-text; however, two entries from the same author appear in the Works Cited. Thus, the writer includes both the author’s last name and the article title in the parenthetical citation in order to lead the reader to the appropriate entry on the Works Cited page (see below). In the second example, “Russell et al.” in the parenthetical citation gives the reader an author name followed by the abbreviation “et al.,” meaning, “and others,” for the article “MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” Both corresponding Works Cited entries are as follows:
Taylor, Rumsey. "Fitzcarraldo." Slant, 13 Jun. 2003, www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/fitzcarraldo/.
Russell, Tony, et al. "MLA Formatting and Style Guide." The Purdue OWL, 2 Aug. 2016, owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/.
To cite multiple sources in the same parenthetical reference, separate the citations by a semi-colon:
. . . as has been discussed elsewhere (Burke 3; Dewey 21).
Time-based media sources
When creating in-text citations for media that has a runtime, such as a movie or podcast, include the range of hours, minutes and seconds you plan to reference, like so (00:02:15-00:02:35).
When a citation is not needed
Common sense and ethics should determine your need for documenting sources. You do not need to give sources for familiar proverbs, well-known quotations or common knowledge. Remember, this is a rhetorical choice, based on audience. If you're writing for an expert audience of a scholarly journal, for example, they'll have different expectations of what constitutes common knowledge.
Referencing your sources means systematically showing what information or ideas you are quoting or paraphrasing from another author’s work, and identifying where that information come from. You must cite research in order to do research, but at the same time, you must delineate what are your original thoughts and ideas and what are the thoughts and ideas of others.
Procedures used to reference the sources you have relied upon vary among different fields of study. However, always speak with your professor about what writing style for citing sources should be used for the class because it is important to fully understand the citation style to be used in your paper, and to apply it consistently. If your professor defers and tells you to "choose whatever you want, just be consistent," then choose the citation style you are most familiar with or that is appropriate to the discipline [e.g., use Chicago style if its a history class; use APA if its an education course; use MLA if it is a general writing course].
1. Should I avoid referencing other people's work?
No! Referencing other people's research is never an indication that your work is substandard or lacks originality if placed in the proper context. In fact, the opposite is true. If you write your paper without adequate references to previous studies, you are signaling to the reader that you are not familiar with the literature about the topic, thereby, undermining the validity of your study and your credibility as a researcher. Including references in academic writing not only defends you against allegations of plagiarism, but it is one of the most important ways to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of previous studies about the research problem. It is the intellectual packaging around which you present your study to the reader.
2. What should I do if I find that my idea has already been examined by another researcher?
Do not ignore another author's work because doing so will lead your readers to believe that you have either borrowed the idea or information without properly referencing it [this is plagiarism] and/or that you have failed to conduct a thorough review of the literature. You can acknowledge the other research by writing in the text of your paper something like this: [see also Smith, 2002], then citing the complete source in your list of references. Use the discovery of prior research is an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the problem being investigated and, if applicable, as a means of delineating your analysis from those of others [e.g., the prior study in ten years old and doesn't take into account current conditions]. Reacting to prior research can include: stating how your study updates prior research, offering a new or different perspective, using a different method of data gathering, or describing a new set of recommendations, best practices, or working solutions.
3. What should I do if I want to use an adapted version of someone else's work?
You still must cite the original work. For example, maybe you are using a table of statistics from a journal article published in 1996 by author Smith, but you have altered or added new data to it. Reference the revised chart as: [adapted from Smith, 1996] then cite the complete source in your list of references. You can also use other terms in order to specify the exact relationship between the original source and the version you have presented, such as, "based on Smith ...," or "summarized from Smith ...." Citing the original source helps the reader locate where the information was first presented and under what context it was used as well as evaluate how effectively you adapted it.
4. What should I do if several authors have published very similar information or ideas?
You can indicate that the idea or information can be found in the work of others by stating something similar to the following example: "Though in fact many authors have applied this theory to understanding economic relations among nations [for example, see Smith, 1989; Jones, 19991; Johnson, 1994], little attention has been given to applying the theory to examining the actions of non-governmental organizations in a globalized economy." If you only reference one author or only the most recent study, then your readers may assume that only one author has published on this topic, or, conclude that you have not reviewed the literature thoroughly. Referencing all relevant authors of prior studies gives your readers a clear idea of the breadth of analysis you conducted in preparing to study the research problem. If there has been a lot of prior research on the topic, cite the most comprehensive and recent works because they will presumably discuss and cite the older studies, but note that there has been significant scholarship devoted to the topic so the reader knows that you are aware of this.
5. What if I find exactly what I want to say in the writing of another researcher?
In the social sciences, the rationale in duplicating prior research is generally governed by changing circumstances or conditions that warrant a new investigation. If someone else has thoroughly investigated precisely the same research problem as you, then you likely will have to change your topic, or at the very least, review the literature to identify something new to say about the problem. However, if it is someone else's particularly succinct expression, but it fits perfectly with what you are trying to say, then you can quote it directly, referencing the source. Don't see this as a setback or discouraged by the fact that the brilliant idea or important insight that you came up with on your own has already been identified by someone else. Discovering an author who has made the same point that you have is an opportunity to add legitimacy to, as well as reinforce the significance of, the research problem you are investigating. The key is to build on that idea in new and innovative ways.
6. Should I cite a source even if it was published long ago?
Obviously, any resource used in writing your paper should be cited, regardless of when the study was completed. However, in building a case for understanding prior research about your topic, it is generally true that you should focus on citing the most recently published studies because they presumably have built upon the research of older publications. This is particularly true of new or revised editions of books, unless an older edition has unique information not carried over into newer editions. When referencing prior studies, use the research problem as your guide concerning what to cite. If a study from forty years ago investigated the same research problem, it probably should be studied and included in your list of references because the research may have been a foundational or groundbreaking even if its findings are no longer relevant to current conditions or reflective of current thinking [one way to determine if a study is foundational or groundbreaking is to examine how often it has been cited in recent studies]. However, if an older study only relates to the research problem tangentially ot it has not been cited in more recent studies, then it may be more appropriate to list it under suggested readings.
Ballenger, Bruce P. The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. 7th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012;Harvard Guide to Using Sources. Harvard College Writing Program. Harvard University;How to Cite Other Sources in Your Paper. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Lunsford, Andrea A. and Robert Connors; The St. Martin's Handbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989; Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. 3rd edition. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2015; Research and Citation Resources. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Using Evidence. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University.