The Writing Process

6 Cite Your Sources

Many of your writing assignments, not just in your English class but in other classes as well, require research. Your teachers will expect you to acknowledge your research sources and will provide instruction in how to do this, using a recognized academic citation method.

It is essential that you acknowledge your sources thoroughly and accurately. If you do not, you may face an accusation of plagiarism. Plagiarism is the failure—deliberately, unknowingly, or carelessly—to signal to your readers that the content of any part of your written work—direct quotes, paraphrases, or summaries—comes from a research source, including an essay purchased online. Plagiarism is a serious form of academic misconduct, usually punished at the minimum by a failing grade.

There are a variety of reputable and widely used citation methods, the method chosen usually dependent upon the academic discipline within which the writer is working. The Modern Language Association of scholars in literature and language designed the MLA method for citing sources.  History and philosophy may also use the MLA method. The American Psychological Association developed the APA method for citing sources, widely used in the social sciences, including education.  The University of Chicago publishes The Chicago Manual of Style, which provides another citation system widely used in academia.

This chapter provides instruction in the use of the MLA method. It then provides links to instructions in the use of the APA and CMS methods.

The MLA Method

If you are required to use the MLA citation method, you must cite all of your sources twice: first in MLA shorthand in parentheses within the text, and second at the end of the paper in a list called works cited. The in-text parenthetical citation is brief, typically an author’s last name and a page number only.

The works cited list contains the complete bibliographical information for each source, which is all the information readers who want to access the source would require. It is organized alphabetically, by author’s last name, so the parenthetical citation directs readers efficiently to the corresponding entry in the works cited list.

Rules for In-Text Parenthetical Citation

To indicate a direct quote from a secondary source, place quotation marks around the words you are quoting and then put the author’s last name and the page number from the secondary source in which the information can be found. Short direct quotes are integrated into the text of the essay and placed between quotation marks, “so a short direct quote properly acknowledged would look like this” (Author 34). Note the quotation marks around our imagined quote from a secondary source and note that there is not a comma between the author’s last name (“Author,” in our example) and the page number.

If the author’s name is already mentioned in the text, only the page number is placed in parentheses: As Author notes, “only the page number is required” (34).

Long quotes are indented and blocked off from the text of the essay. The distinction between short quotes and long ones is somewhat arbitrary, but quotes of more than about three lines should be set off from the rest of the essay in the manner illustrated here.

Note that the quotation marks have been eliminated. The indentation indicates that the material is quoted directly from a secondary source. Quotation marks are used only if the original uses quotation marks. Note also that after a short quote comes the parenthetical citation followed by a period, but in the long, indented quote, like this one, the period precedes the parenthetical citation. (Author 39)

Most instructors do not appreciate too many long direct quotes in student essays, especially if the quotes create the impression that students are turning in a “cut and paste” assignment.

In addition to direct quotes, you must cite other information taken from a secondary source. The general rule is that if you possessed the information before you began the essay (as in, it’s general knowledge), you do not need to cite it, but if you acquired the information in the course of writing the essay, you do need to cite it. Again, put in parentheses the author’s last name and the page number where the information can be found. You need to include the page number even if you have paraphrased the information.

If you have used two or more works by the same author, you need to provide a shorthand version of the title of the source to distinguish it from other titles by the same author (Author, Short 34). Note the use of the comma after the author’s name but not between the title and the page number. If the author’s name is mentioned, his or her name is not included in the citation: As Author has shown, “citing sources can be frustrating” (Short 34).

If your source is written by four or more people, you need only name the first author followed by the Latin words et al. (meaning “and others”) and, of course, the page number (First et al. 145). Note the period after “al.” Again, note that no commas are used. Et al. is also used in place of all but the first author’s name if you mention the author’s name in the text of the essay: Smith et al. have conducted research that suggests that “students enjoy writing academic essays” (145).

If your source is written by a corporate author, treat the corporate author as you would a single author: According to government sources, ten-year-olds watch an average of four hours of television per day (Royal Commission on Elementary Education 234).

If the author of your source is anonymous, name the title or a shortened version in the parenthetical citation. Italicize a book title; put quotation marks around an article title. If you use a shortened version, include the first word in the title since it will be alphabetized by title in the works cited list. If, for example, the title of your source is “Rating the Quality of the Undergraduate Programs of British Universities,” your citation could be as short as the word “Rating” (“Rating” 86).

If you quote from a novel, follow the procedure for a single author. You may also include the chapter number to help your readers find the passage in a different edition of the novel from the one you used. If you include the chapter number, put a semicolon between the page number and the chapter number (Austen 79; ch. 6). Usually you do not have to include the author’s name because the context of your discussion will make clear who the author is.

If you quote from a poem, give the line numbers you are quoting instead of the page number on which the quote appears (Wordsworth 34–40). Provide a shortened version of the title if you quote from more than one poem by the same author and if the context has not made clear the author and the title (Wordsworth, “Tintern” 34–40). Note the punctuation.

If you quote from a Shakespearean play or from another play in verse, list the act, scene, and line numbers, separated by periods, so that a quote taken from Act IV, Scene 2, lines nine to eleven would be (4.2.9–11).

If you quote from the Bible, list the chapter and the verse or verses, separated by a period. Include an abbreviated title of the book, if the context does not make it obvious. For example, a quote from “Leviticus,” Chapter 12, verses two to four would be (Lev. 12.2–4).

If you quote from a work from an anthology, remember it is the author’s name and not the name of the anthology editor that appears in parentheses.

If you quote from an indirect source—a source quoted in one of your sources—include the abbreviation for “quoted in” in your parenthetical citation: Smith notes that “indirect sources must be cited appropriately” (qtd. in Robins 257). Note carefully the way the citation is punctuated.

If you got the same information from more than one source or if you want to underscore the authority of a point by citing more than one source, do so by separating the sources from each other with semicolons: Experts agree that the semicolon can be used between sources (Wilson 34; Martens 68; Pelies 124).

If your source has no page numbers (as many electronic sources do not), you may omit the page numbers or include the paragraph number if the paragraphs are numbered (as they sometimes are in electronic sources): If necessary, “you should cite the paragraph number in place of the page number” (Smith, par. 12). Note the way this citation is punctuated.

Rules for List of Works Cited

The works cited list contains the complete bibliographical information for each source used in an academic writing assignment. Each item in a works cited list must contain enough information so that readers could access the source themselves, online or at the library, if they chose to do so.

You should follow a model, in order to use MLA format correctly. Determine the type of source you are using in your list of works cited; then find an example of the same type of source, properly cited; then mimic the format of the properly cited source as you prepare your own. A variety of such models are presented below. If the model you need is not represented in the list below, consult the most recent edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

The Modern Language Association recognizes the complexity of citing sources at a time when we get our information from such a wide array of print, digital, and online media. They allow for some leeway in the information included.

Sample Citations

For a book in print, the core elements are author, italicized title, publisher, and date of publication. The place of publication is no longer a core element. Here is an example:

Smitherman, Geneva. Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. Routledge, 2006.

A book, of course, might have more than one author; it might be in an edition subsequent to the first; it might have an editor or a translator. Note the form of the MLA Works Cited for the books listed below. Note, especially:

If a book has two authors, the second author’s name follows, first name first.

Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Utah State UP, 2015.

If a book is in an edition other than the first, the edition number follows the title. Note the punctuation.

Ferris, Dana. Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing, 2nd. Ed. U of Michigan Press, 2011.

If there are two books by the same author a line replaces the author’s name for the second (and subsequent, if there are any) source. This rule applies to all types of sources.

Gee, James P. The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

—. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Smitherman, Geneva. Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. Routledge, 2006.

If the book does not have a named author, the title takes the place of the author and is alphabetized in the Works Cited list, accordingly.

Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. American Educational Research Association, 2014.

If the book is a translation, the name of the translator follows the title.

Voloshinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Translated by Ladislav Matejka and I.R. Titunik, Harvard UP, 1986.

If a book has three or more authors, the Latin phrase et al. (meaning “and others”) follows the first author’s name.

White, Edward, et al. Very Like a Whale: The Assessment of Writing Programs. Utah State UP, 2015.

For an article or a story or a poem from a book, typically an anthology of readings or literary works, start with the name of the author and the title of the shorter work, followed by the title of the book and the names of its editor(s), in the manner illustrated below.

Larkin, Philip. “Talking in Bed.” Poems. Poets. Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. 3rd. ed., edited by Helen Vendler, Bedford St. Martin’s, 2010, p. 114.

For an article from a periodical (journal, magazine, newspaper) in print, the core elements are author(s), title of article, title of periodical, number(s), date, page numbers. If the article is suspended, meaning it is to be continued towards the end of the newspaper or magazine, a plus sign follows the page numbers. Study these examples:

Burrough, Bryan. “Field of Nightmares.” Vanity Fair, Nov. 2016, pp. 164–169+.

Gabriel, Trip. “50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back.” New York Times, 20 April 2014, p. A1.

Greer, Jane. “Expanding Working-Class Rhetorical Traditions: The Moonlight Schools and Alternative Solidarities among Appalachian Women, 1911-1920.” College English, vol. 17, no. 1, 2015, pp. 216-35.

For sources accessed online, state the author; the title; the name of the journal, newspaper, or magazine; the volume and issue number, if available; the information service (ProQuest, Academic Search Premier…), and the URL or, better, the DOI.  If you use a DOI, the date of access is not necessary; it is recommended if you use the source’s URL. The MLA allows some latitude in citing internet sources, in recognition of the vast array of choices and the inconsistency in information available about authors, dates, titles. Study the following examples of online sources, cited in MLA format.

Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and The National Writing Project (NWP), “Framework for Success in Post-Secondary Writing,” January 2001,

Lovett, Richard A. and Scott Hoffman. “Ark of the Covenant: Many Legends, No Evidence.” National Geographic. (n.d.), Accessed 3 Jan. 2017.

“Oral Presentation – Classroom Workshop.” YouTube, uploaded by tamuwritingcenter, 1 Feb. 2013,

Robertson, Liane, et al. “Notes Toward a Theory of Prior Knowledge and Its Role in Composers’ Transfer of Knowledge and Practice.” Composition Forum, no. 26, Fall 2012,

Takayoshi, Pamela. “The Shape of Electronic Writing: Evaluating and Assessing Computer-assisted Writing Processes and Products.” Computers and Composition, vol. 13, no. 2, December 1996, pp. 245-57. JSTOR, doi: 10.1016/S8755-4615(96)90013-4.

Additional Notes

  1. The title “Works Cited” is centred and appears in roman type. Do not use italics, boldface, or large lettering. One line is left between the title and the first entry.
  2. The works cited list is arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name. If the author of the source is anonymous, the source is placed in the list alphabetically by its title. The sources are not numbered.
  3. The list uses hanging indentation. The first line of each source is not indented but all subsequent lines are.
  4. Book, journal, newspaper, and magazine titles are italicized, but article titles are placed in quotation marks.
  5. Page numbers are included for articles in journals, newspapers, and magazines and for articles or essays included in an edited anthology or collection of essays.
  6. Academic journals are identified by the year in which they were published, a volume number, and, if there is one, an issue number.
  7. Citations for online sources include the date the source appeared online and may include the date the user of the source accessed the source.
  8. Citations for online sources include the source’s Uniform Resource Locator (URL) or, preferred if available, the Digital Object Identifier (DOI).
  9. Like the rest of the essay, the works cited list is double-spaced.
  10. If one author has written two (or more) different sources cited in an academic text, a straight line replaces the author’s name in the subsequent citations.
  11. You might wish to use an online citation generator, such as Citation Machine, EasyBib, or Cite This For Me to help you cite your sources correctly. You should still double-check the accuracy of your citation against a textbook model. And you need to make certain the citation generator uses the most recent version of the citation system.

The APA Method

The American Psychological Association method for citing sources is also widely used, especially in college courses. If you take a psychology or an education course, you will be required to use the APA method to cite sources in your writing assignments. Other disciplines which may use APA include business, sociology, international relations, political science, and criminology.

Here, courtesy of University of Alberta Libraries, is a link which explains the rules and regulations for citing books, articles, web resources, and multimedia resources using the APA method: APA Citation Style Guide.


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Composition and Literature Copyright © 2019 by James Sexton and Derek Soles is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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