MLA Basics

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MLA BASICS

from the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition

What Is MLA?

  • MLA stands for the Modern Language Association.
  • MLA style, then, is how this group thinks a paper should be prepared.
  • Many disciplines in the humanities use this style to present written information.

Why Should You Use MLA?

  • MLA allows you to use other people’s ideas to support your own.
  • You have to make sure you document the source you are paraphrasing or quoting, so that readers can distinguish between your ideas and someone else’s ideas.
  • In other words, MLA protects you against plagiarism!

 

Definitions of Some Important Terms

These definitions will help you better understand how to integrate your sources into your project.

Journal: A “journal” is a periodical written for a highly specialized audience. Typically the readers of journal articles are researchers, educators, or practitioners in a particular discipline. For example, medical doctors read the Journal of the American Medical Association. Technical communicators read the journals entitled Technical Communication and the Journal of Business and Technical Writing. Literature professors read journals such as College English and Anglo Saxon and Medieval Literature.

Document journal articles differently than other periodicals like magazines. A magazine is written so that anyone can understand it. Example magazine titles include Parent Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, and Reader's Digest. You can find magazines on newsstands in grocery stores, whereas you wouldn't find journals in the same places.

There are several clues to look for when determining whether or not an article is from a magazine or a journal:

  • The title of the publication may have the word journal in it.
  • If the text of the article uses a lot of words that only a specialist would know, chances are it is from a journal.
  • Search the title of the publication in a search engine such as Google. Most magazines and journals have Web sites, and they will tell you what kind of publication it is.

Periodical: “Periodical” is a generic term that refers to publications that are published periodically such as newspapers, magazines, and journals. Each periodical type uses a different MLA style model. So, for example, look up the model for newspaper articles when documenting a newspaper. Look up the model for a magazine article when documenting a magazine article, and so on.

Quotation: When you directly copy a phrase, sentence, or group of sentences from another author’s work, you are quoting. Surround the material with quotation marks to show that the author's words appear in your work exactly as he/she wrote them.

Paraphrase: Writers should not pack their essays with others' quotations. Doing so can raise questions about whether the writer was just lazy and did not want to do the hard work of integrating the author's work into his/her own project, or perhaps the writer did not really understand what the author wrote and resorted to over-quoting to cover for that lack of understanding.

Rather than quoting source material every time you want to use another's ideas, reserve quotations for those authors and snippets of texts that articulate an idea in such a special or unique way that you want to preserve those words exactly as they are.

Otherwise, paraphrase. “Paraphrasing” refers to the process of putting an author's words entirely into your own voice and style and integrating them into your work with a lead-in phrase and parenthetical note (both explained below).

When paraphrasing, be sure to completely rework the original words into your own style to avoid accusations of plagiarism.

Example
The original words written by Joanna Williams in a hypothetical article published in 2009 on page 3: I earned a PhD in technical communication and rhetoric because I have a streak that admires the very practical.

Quoting from the original above: Joanna Williams, professor of technical communication and rhetoric at the University of Central Arkansas, writes, "I earned a PhD in technical communication and rhetoric because I have a streak that admires the very practical" (3).

*Note that the quote contains a “credentials statement.” You should describe the credentials of each source the first time you quote or paraphrase that author. Also note that the number in parentheses is the page number in MLA style. The information in the parentheses is called the "parenthetical documentation " or “parenthetical reference.”  In MLA style, don't include a "p." or "pp." before the page numbers. Notice the period comes after the reference.

Paraphrasing from the original above: Joanna Williams teaches technical communication at the University of Central Arkansas. She explains that one of her motivations for pursuing a PhD in technical communication and rhetoric was her inclination towards the practical (3).

Lead-in Phrase: Notice the parts of the sentences above in the definition of “paraphrase” that introduce the author and the author's credentials (Joanna Williams, professor of technical communication and rhetoric at the University of Central Arkansas, writes… and Joanna Williams teaches technical communication at the University of Central Arkansas).

Whether you are quoting or paraphrasing, these pieces, called “lead-in phrases,” are essential. The lead-in phrase is an important element to include when integrating sources into your own writing. Often, when lead-in phrases are left out, students can sometimes be accused of plagiarism because it is not clear where a paraphrase has begun. For example, let's say that you inserted a quote into an essay, and then you spent two paragraphs and part of a third explaining the quotation in terms of your main argument and showing why it supports that point of view. Next, you insert a paraphrase. If you don't include a lead-in phrase, how will the reader know where the last paraphrase begins?

*This kind of confusion opens you up to accusations of plagiarism. It is important to clarify source usage as carefully as possible to protect yourself.

Once you have introduced the full name of the author plus her/his credentials, your lead- in phrases only have to include the author's last name. Often, a reference to "her" or "he also believes," and so on, suffices.

Example
According to Lyndsay Murray, organic chemist at the University of Iowa, students learn how important chemistry is to society in the course Organic Chemistry I (18). She also writes that chemistry as a major can lead to high-paying, rewarding careers in both education and industry (26). Finally, Murray advises all students to take at least one or two chemistry courses while in college to gain a fascinating new perspective on nature (30).

***The point is to clarify, at every point, when you are integrating someone else's words into your own versus when you are writing your own words.

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