A Short Introduction to the MLA Style of Parenthetical Documentation

The fine points of MLA style are contained in your usage book (e.g., Hacker's A Writer's Reference) or (less reliably) at sites such as this one.  Click here to see the rudiments of the 2008 MLA updates.  What follows are the most basic ideas of this style of documentation. 

To avoid plagiarism, any idea or direct quotation you employ in a paper must be acknowledged in both an in-text citation and a Works Cited entry (not footnotes or endnotes).  Both are important.  Let's say that I am reading Thoreau's Walden and come across the following on page 78:   

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises?  If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.  It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple-tree or oak.  Shall he turn his spring into summer?  

Let's say that my paper, a proposal argument, is in opposition to the plans of some in Washington to weaken employer overtime laws and make the work-week longer (I'm not making this up!), so I put a snippet of Thoreau's words in my own sentences:

Life today is already too fast-paced and frantic.  Families do not spend enough time together as it is, and only the well-off have enough leisure time, never mind the money, to pursue interests that largely define who we are and which lay outside of our vocations.  With Thoreau, many of us find ourselves asking, "Why should we be in such a desperate haste to succeed . . . ?" (78).  As a society, we are too driven by corporatism and go-getterism, even though ours is already the wealthiest nation on the planet and, possibly, in the history of humankind.  [and so on]

Note that the (78) refers to the page number of Walden from which I borrow.  If I hadn't for some reason mentioned Thoreau's name in my sentence, my parenthetical citation would have to include the author's name along with the page number: (Thoreau 78).  You don't need to place a comma after the author's name; nor do you need "page," "pg.," or any other abbreviation before the actual page number.  How does the reader know the source of the quotation is from Walden?  Because I will place, at the end of the paper, an alphabetized Works Cited page with the following bibliographical entry:

    Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.  Print.

If my paper uses two quotations from Thoreau, my parenthetical citation would have to contain the title of the source, or a part of the title, if it is more than two or three words long, e.g., (Walden 78).  Likewise, my Works Cited would have to contain an entry for every work I use in my paper.

These are the bottom-line basics of MLA parenthetical citation.  There are dozens if not hundreds of different types of texts.  Some are easy to cite parenthetically and in a Works Cited page, but you might have to use a text for which you cannot find citation instructions in your handbook.  In such a case, ask your instructor what you should do.

Click here for a brief discussion of what you do and do not need to cite in your work.

It is best, when directly quoting a source, to integrate the quotation with your own prose.  Only rarely should you use a quotation disembodied from your own words.  Such phrases as "According to Thoreau . . ." or "Thoreau discusses this issue in Walden, when he writes that . . ." and the like may be useful to you.  On the rare occasion that you need to quote a text that runs over four lines, you must indent the quotation ten spaces (or, usually, two tab keys).  Indented quotations are double-spaced.  Works Cited entries, both within and between, are also double-spaced, and the entries must be alphabetized by the author's last name or the first word in the title (excepting "The," "A," and "An").  Part of becoming an accomplished writer is knowing how to integrate quotations and outside ideas in your own writing.  Like most other things of value, though, knowing how to do this well takes practice.