|A critical part of the writing process is knowing when a citation is
appropriate. An unnecessary citation is annoying, but lack of a proper
citation when one is needed can be confusing at best, plagiaristic at worst.
The following sorts of material must be cited:
- An interpretation, opinion, or judgment from another source, even if
put in your own words.
- Facts that are not obvious or generally known.
How to Cite
Any material in your paper that falls in the above categories must be cited,
even if the source is a friend or professor. Exact quotes must always have
quotation marks around them. The lack of quotation marks around an exact quote
is plagiarism, even if the source is otherwise acknowledged.
A citation in MLA style will follow the statement to be acknowledged as the
author's last name and a page number (or numbers) that the statement came
from: (Lanier 49). (Note that the period follows the citation and there is
no comma or "p" or "pp" abbreviation for page/pages.) For more information
on the details of MLA citation style, see The St. Martin's Handbook.
One way to acknowledge a source is with an introductory statement in the body
of the text: "Robbe-Grillet states that..." or "Barth believes...", for example.
In this case you do not need to rename the source in the following parenthetical
citation in MLA style. The citation should contain only the page number:
"Longyear points out that Romantic escapism was a reaction to the Industrial
There are often gray areas in each of these categories, especially in the
arts, where subjective judgments form such an important part of the literature.
For example, suppose that you read that a source describes The Rite
of Spring as "dynamic," and you agree. Does that mean that every time
you use the word "dynamic" you have to put it in quotes and refer to that
source? Probably not, since it is a common word and few people would disagree.
What if the source referred to the use of syncopated rhythms?
You would not have to cite that either, since syncopation is an objective
quality that anyone can see or hear; that is, it is a statement of general
fact for most people.
What if the source found a hidden quotation of a Russian folk
song? That is a fact that would not be obvious to most people and which
the writer probably only found after some detailed analysis. Therefore
you would cite such information.
What if the source describes The Rite of Spring as being
the first truly modern composition? Well, some people might disagree, as
that's a subjective judgment. Even if you agree, if the source gave you
the idea, then you should cite it.
Sometimes in everyday speech, we refer to common knowledge by saying something
like, "They say that..." or "Some people say...". In most cases, this is
not acceptable in a formal paper. If you think that there was a general
dislike among critics for symbolist poetry, you cannot simply say, "Some
critics condemned symbolist poetry." It may not be common knowledge among
your readers who these critics are. You should cite at least one critic
and make a case that this point of view represented a consensus at the
time: "Critics such as Albert Raymond of Le Monde harshly condemned
the innovations of symbolist poetry (Raymond 1)." Alternatively, you could
cite an authoritative secondary source: "Many critics of the time condemned
the innovations of symbolist poetry (Smith 98)." Whenever you make a point
that somebody said something or held a certain opinion, you need to cite
that fact, unless it is truly common knowledge as defined above.
Quotations within Quotations
If a source you are quoting quotes another source, the reader needs to
know who is saying what: "'[Apollinaire] had the gift of discovering sources
of joy, pleasure, amusement, where others would only have seen platitude
There are two sources here, as shown by the interior quotes. It
is insufficient to simply cite the source you used. Your reader will want
to know who said these words. In this case, you can cite it as: (Billy
qtd. in Schwartz 35). If Schwartz doesn't attribute the quote to a particular
source or if the source is otherwise clear from your text, that name can be
left out: (qtd. in Schwarz 35).
The explosion of information on the web and other electronic sources has
created problems as well as opportunities never considered by earlier writers.
Now it is not only incumbent on the writer to find information, the writer
must also verify its reliability and authority. While the very fact that
a source was printed by a reputable publishing firm previously vouched
for its authority in questions of fact (at least for the purposes of papers
for this class), no such mechanism exists on the web. One way to establish
credibility is to show that the work previously appeared in a peer-reviewed
journal, for example, but, if that's the case, you might as well cite the
journal. Electronic sources are best used as a way to browse a lot of information,
but not as cited sources in your final paper. However, if you do need to
cite electronic materials, here is the latest MLA format for web pages --
author, title, date of last update, date of access, and URL:
Seeger, Peggy. Ruth Crawford Seeger. 1996. September 16, 2001.
While authors and dates of the latest updates are not always obvious,
they can often be found with a little searching. Not including them when
they are available may affect your grade. For more details on citing electronic
sources, see The St. Martin's Handbook.
Use of Sources
Here are some tips about the use of sources in your paper:
- Citations of sources should be necessary. If a quote from a source isn't
absolutely necessary to provide evidence for your argument or make a point necessary for an
analysis, then the citation should be dropped.
- Don't use secondary sources to cite factual information. Unless the information is
non-obvious (such as that uncovered by an author's sophisticated analysis), factual information
does not have to be cited. Do not present such information in a quote, but put it in your
own words. While factual information can be used to support an argument, an argument which is
entirely supported by factual evidence isn't really disputable and doesn't deserve a place in
your outline. The points in a paper should be interpretive and analytical. While you should
present evidence to support them, they should be disputable.
- Secondary sources don't have to agree with you. A source that disagrees with you is
often useful to establish significance for your argument and to have a point to argue against.
At the same time, remember that while analytical critiques of sources are a crucial part of a
research paper, you have to presume that other scholars have studied this topic long and carefully.
Therefore don't be flip or superficial in rejecting their conclusions.
- Don't use secondary sources as "votes" for your point. Secondary sources should
provide support for your interpretation and analysis, but that doesn't mean that the source
should make exactly the same point you're making. If all your quotes and citations merely echo what
you're saying, then your "evidence" will essentially be only that other people agree with
you. While that might in some instances be good to know, the mere fact that others agree
with you isn't necessarily convincing or interesting for the reader.