Introduction to MLA

Introduction: MLA?  Like that bibliography stuff?

Ugh, why are you making us do this?!?!?!?! 

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Great question. MLA can look really foreign, unnecessary and difficult, but the goal is quite the opposite: MLA is intended to help prove your point and avoid accusations of plagiarism in the SIMPLEST way possible.  It may not seem that way at first, but stick with me a moment.  Take this example:

That one’s pretty obviously not a Lincoln quote, but the point is clear: the age of information is also the age of misinformation and all those quotes you see on the internet may not actually be from who they say they’re from.  Attribution is more important now than ever.  If you attribute your source correctly, it puts some of the responsibility on your source.  i.e. if you use an inaccurate quote or inaccurate information it looks like you’re lying and making stuff up to suit your own needs, but if you attribute that information to the source where you got it, at least that part of the burden is off your shoulders.  (The part about poorly selecting sources isn’t off your shoulders, but we’ll talk about that later.)

Here are a few more Lincoln quotes that he probably never said:

  • It will not do to investigate the subject of religion too closely, as it is apt to lead to Infidelity.
  • If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.
  • Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory.
  • And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
  • I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.

(“Abraham Lincoln”)

I cannot tell a lie – I’ve even been fooled.  We were reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo one year and his philosophy sounded a lot like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism.  One quote in particular I thought must be an allusion, and sure enough the internet confirmed it in several places.

Except, nope!  I couldn’t find what speech or essay the Emerson quote came from – something that should be pretty easy in today’s age and a few CTL-F’s, but nope. Emerson never said the universe conspires to do anything.

Your audience should be able to check not only your logic, but also your facts and sources to make sure it all adds up.

And this isn’t just about quotes on the internet! Statistics and other things are made up too, and that’s why you have to be really careful when choosing your sources.

The idea is not only that you are covering your own tail, but that you are creating a trail that others can follow to substantiate your results.  Remember that scientific method stuff you learned in science class?  An experiment isn’t any good if others can’t re-create your results.  The same is true for a paper.  Your audience should be able to check not only your logic, but also your facts and sources to make sure it all adds up.

OK, so I get we should say where we got our stuff, but why this MLA nonsense?

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Well, we need a universal way of citing sources and making sure readers can easily find our sources.  There are several formats that various disciplines might use – APA (American Psychological Association) for psychology, Chicago Style for Anthropology, etc. but MLA (Modern Languages Association) is the easiest and most commonly used, thus it’s the one we use at Grimsley.  Once you learn it, furthermore, if you ever have to use one of the others, the transition will be easy because the concepts are already there. 

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” (Thoreau)

MLA is supposed to be easy, but it can be really complicated to someone sitting in a high school classroom, so let’s talk about just how simple it is.

Basically, all you have to do is put the author’s last name or website title in parenthesis after your quote, statistic, or image.  Then at the end of your document you have a works cited page that tells people how they can find that quote, stat or image.  We’ll go over this in more depth in the quote integration and works cited sections, but let’s take two of your most common sources as an example case: books and internets.

Book example:

Did you know that once upon a time a giant named Thrym stole Thor’s hammer and Thor had to dress up as a bride in order to trick them and get it back?  Pretty embarrassing for such a macho god!  So “he hit Thrym with his hammer only once, but once was all it took.  The ogre fell to the straw-covered floor, and he did not rise again” (Gaiman 123).

Notice all I had to do is put the author’s last name and page number in parentheses after the quote.  I didn’t have to add the word or abbreviation for page, not even a comma!  Then if you look at my works cited, under G for Gaiman, you’ll find the full reference so you can easily find the book for yourself if you like.  Putting together the citation is pretty simple too, just fill in the blanks:

Last name: _Gaiman__, First name: __Neil__Title: ___Norse Mythology__.  Publisher: ___W. W. Norton & Company__.  Publication date: __2018__.

All together, the citation for my works cited page looks like this:

Web Sources

Quoting from web sources isn’t much different.  If you don’t have an author’s last name, use the username, if you don’t have that, use the web site’s name.  Basically, just keep going down the list of what goes in the citation and the first thing you have you put in parentheses.  If you are using a PDF that has page numbers like a book does, use the page number where you found it.  If, like most websites, there is no page number, just the name is fine, for example:

“Thrym says that he has hidden Mjölnir [Thor’s hammer] eight leagues beneath the earth, from which it will be retrieved, but only if Freyja is brought to him as his wife” (“Thor”).

Flip back to my works cited and you’ll find I filled in the blanks once again.

Author’s name or username: ___n/a___  Website title: __”Thor”__ Webpage name: __Wikipedia.org__.  Publisher or Sponsoring Institution: __Wikimedia Foundation__.    Date of last update: __23 July 2018__.  URL or permalink:  Date of access: __Accessed 28 July 2018__.

So all together it looks like this:

Why can’t I just cut and paste a URL and be done?

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

There are several problems with just using a link:

  1. The web is too dynamic: links and information on web pages change all the time, we need more information than that, such as the date of update and date of access.
  2. URLs don’t tell the reader what quote, stat, or image they go with, so we need the in-text citation and then author and title in the works cited so we know what goes with what.
  3. Adding information such as the publisher and author add credibility.  You can find a website that says just about whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s true or a reliable source. Choose good sources and cite them properly to build a strong paper.

Next: The Basics of Formulating an Argument

Back to Table of Contents