Basics of Citing, MLA: In Text Citations

This article will focus on creating the in-text components of your citations, which appear within the narrative of your paper. You may recall that the in-text citation is where you pause in your writing to acknowledge the source of the idea or quote you’ve just referred to in your work.

Why are these in-text citations needed when you’re already including a Works Cited list? Basically it’s done for the sake of clarity, and to avoid making someone else’s words or ideas appear as if they are your own, which is plagiarism. It works in conjunction with the Works Cited list by using the first word or words of the entry as it’s written in the Works Cited list, which is usually the author’s last name.

It also shows your reader which specific parts of that source informed your own work by giving the page number where they can find the idea or quote you reference. It’s a huge help to your reader, and it makes you, the writer, look even more credible. Now let’s see how to create the in-text citations in MLA Style by looking at different examples. The most basic version of an in text citation places the author’s last name and the page number, with no comma in-between, at the end of the sentence containing the idea or quote referenced. You do this because you want to be clear about where the borrowed information came from, but you don’t want to interrupt the sentence with a citation if possible. Remember one of the reasons we include in text citations is for the sake of clarity.

If it’s more clear to include the parenthetical part of the citation in the middle of a sentence, put it where there is a natural pause, such as before a comma. Notice that the order will always go: ending quotation mark (if it is a direct quote), parenthetical citation, period. The period, or any other punctuation, always comes after the closing parenthesis. Another common version of the in text citation has the author’s name worked into the narrative of your writing in what’s called a signal phrase, which introduces the borrowed quote or idea to your reader. The page number, if there is one, then appears later in parentheses.

Note that when the author’s name is incorporated in the signal phrase it is not repeated in the parenthetical citation. This method allows you to incorporate the outside source more seamlessly, while still being very clear about which information is from the source and which is your original idea. Again, the punctuation for the end of the sentence is placed after the closing parenthesis.

Questions often arise at this point: What if my source doesn’t have an author listed, or What if there is more than one author? What if I have more than one source by the same author? And what if my source doesn’t have page numbers?

We’ll look at the author issue first. Remember that the in text citation points your reader to the corresponding entry in your Works Cited list. So even if your source doesn’t have an author, you will still go to Works Cited entry and use the first words of the complete citation for the in text citation, which, if there is no author given, will be the title. Use your best judgment on how much of the title is needed to make it clear to your reader which entry you are referencing.

You may use just the first 2 or 3 words, or you may include the complete title, particularly if you are incorporating the title into your narrative or signal phrase. If the source you reference has 2 or 3 authors, include every author’s last name. List them in the same order as you did in your Works Cited entry, but use only their last names. If the source has more than 3 authors, again, list them as you did in the Works Cited entry, which in this case should be the first author followed by the phrase “et al.”. It will look like this. If you have two or more sources by the same author listed in your Works Cited list, you need to distinguish between those sources when referencing them in the in text citation.

You do this by adding in all or part of the title in between the author’s last name and the page number. Notice the comma and period placement. And what about pages numbers?

Sometimes you will run across sources, especially those from a website, that don’t have page numbers. If the paragraphs are numbered, or if sections are numbered, use those instead of a page number. But if no such markers are available simply leave them off.

Also, be careful not to use page numbers that are automatically added to a document as you print it. They often look like this. Because they don’t appear in the original document they will only be confusing to your reader. So if you find no page numbers your in text citation may look like this, or may consist only of a reference in the signal phrase, with no parenthetical citation.

Also, if you are referencing the whole work, if the whole work is very short, or if the work is visual, no page number is needed. A couple of final tips: In the previous video in this series we suggested that you create a document where you can copy and paste all the citations you might use in your project. Another good habit to adopt is to make note of the source and page number of every quote and idea you write into your notes or your paper as you go. Again, you are saving your future self time and energy. Think of these notes as leaving yourself a trail of breadcrumbs through the woods, little signs that will let you or your reader get back home to the original source.