Back to basics – MLA8 revisited

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I have to admit, I am excited by the latest edition of the MLA Handbook. Gulp! Does that make me some kind of uber-nerd?

I am breaking into my mini-series on common documentation errors in IB extended essays to share my excitement. MLA8 gives us a new way of looking at citation and referencing, very different to the approach taken in the previous edition. What’s more, the hopes I expressed for this new edition (well before it was actually published – see the post MLA8 – new edition of MLA Handbook) are incorporated in the new approach.

The special delight is because, in basing its new approach on the principles and the purposes of citation and referencing, MLA8 provides us with principles which can be applied to any referencing style or style guide. What you might call a WHYs move, perhaps.

The subtitle of the handbook, at least on Amazon’s UK site, is Rethinking Documentation for the Digital Age (Mla Handbook for Writers of Research Ppapers) (sic). As you will have gathered from my introduction, they really have rethought their approach.

The authors give us three basic principles which can be applied to any kind of source, regardless of format, regardless of platform. These principles are:

Cite simple traits shared by most works.
There is often more than one correct way to document a source.
Make your documentation useful to your readers (pp. 3-4).

The “simple traits shared by most works” are authors and titles. MLA8 starts from this premise (and includes suggestions for what to do when the author’s name cannot be found, or when there is no title).

That is not enough in itself. We (readers) need to know more so that we can, if we wish, find the exact source or a copy of the exact source used.  To enable us to work out what more is needed, MLA8 suggests we think in terms of containers. Most works “exist” in containers. Sometimes the container is complete in itself, a book or a movie, for instance. Sometimes the container holds other works as well, a newspaper article inside a newspaper, a track on a CD, a poem in an anthology. Sometimes there is a nest of containers, so that we have our newspaper article inside a newspaper inside a database, or an episode inside a television series inside a website .

The principle used here, when building a reference, is to work from the source outwards, giving details enough to pinpoint the placement of the source and each container in turn. Details enough to enable the reader to find the exact source or a copy of the exact source used.

It’s a principle which will work for other referencing styles and style guides too. Build from the inside outwards, from the exact source used to the outside container.

This is not far from a model I presented several years ago, in a conference presentation “Using other people’s work, without stress and without tears.”  Start from the centre and work your way outwards (open or download a pdf version of this page.)

The rest of referencing, the formatting of the reference, the order of the elements used in the reference, the punctuation and typeface of those elements and so on, these may vary from one style guide to another, but the basic principle, build from the inside outwards, remains valid.

By using the concept of containers, MLA8 avoids the need to present examples of references for every type of source material imaginable, covering every platform or app or other format known or not yet invented. The Handbook is half the size of its immediate predecessor, and is far more readable.

The principle that there is often more than one correct way to document a source will, I hope, be noted by teachers and examiners and applied, whatever the style used.  It should remove the angst from referencing, the fear of getting it wrong.  Consistency – especially of order of the elements and of punctutation – is more important than notional accuracy.  Completeness – has the reader been given enough information to track down the source used? – is more important than notional accuracy.

There are more reasons for liking this latest edition of the MLA Handbook.  I like the way the authors go back to basics: WHY do we cite and reference?  [We cite to demonstrate our honesty and to help the reader. We reference to allow the reader to follow up, and to demonstrate the breadth and depth of our research.]

The authors go further. They ask writers to consider WHAT readers (and writers) need to know about the books or websites or papers or audio-clips or movies (or whatever else they have used): WHY include need-to-know elements, HOW do these help the reader?

Note that: they do not ask, HOW do we format a reference? They ask, HOW does each element help the reader?  Referencing becomes part of the writing process; the writer is asked to think about the reference and the reader, not struggle to find which rule applies to each particular kind of source.

Do we still need to reference our works at all?  Recent posts in various forums and op-eds have suggested that these days, with so much material online and using sources available online, the days of bibliography are numbered.  Authors can simply provide a direct hyperlink to their sources. The pain of “correctly-formatted” references could soon become a thing of the past. The authors of MLA8 counter this argument: “In a project on the Web, you might link from your citations to the online materials which you cite, allowing a reader to follow references of interest. A works-cited list remains desirable as an appendix to the project, since it gives the reader an organized account of the full range of your sources” (p. 128, my emphasis). The works-cited list enables readers quickly to evaluate the sources used and the breadth and depth of the research.

Help the reader. Helping the reader comes across too in the notion of readability. The principle here is that in-text citations should not get in the way of readability. “The in-text citation,” they say “should direct the reader unambiguously to the entry in your works-cited list for the source – and, if possible, to a passage in the source – while creating the least possible interruption in your text” (p. 54).

This may be the point at which I am most uncomfortable with the new handbook.  The authors suggest that any citation or reference with three or more authors should be shortened to first named author, et al, both in the in-text citation and in the list of works cited.   I can accept that a long list of co-authors can hinder readability of the text, but I think it hinders awareness and evaluation of the “full range of sources” in the works-cited list, especially if any of the co-authors has led or co-authored other studies used and listed.

It may be dangerous in the writing, at the note-making stage: even if a student intends to use et al in the final essay, I suggest s/he be encouraged to note the names of all authors at all earlier stages of the research and writing process. This would avoid any confusion should a second or a third paper by the same authors be found and used. Which paper is which? Were the teams the same?

Indeed, MLA8 allows for inclusion of details believed to be important. The writer decides. If the writer thinks that naming co-performers or co-authors is important and helpful to readers, the writer can do so, and is not wrong to do so.  I wonder if this will help students (and their teachers) or frustrate them? Until students know enough about their subject and about academic writing, they may not know what is helpful, to them and to their readers.

One other piece of advice I particularly like:  MLA8’s suggestions regarding translations, especially translations by the student writer. This is a common question posed in the forums. Once again, the advice is common-sense: a writer could use (my trans) to indicate a self-translation. The editors suggest that, if the writer has many self-translations, it could be useful to use the (my trans) note on the first time this device is used, along with an endnote stating “except where indicated, all translations are my own.” A good idea, methinks, though I’d suggest having the note in a list of acknowledgments and/or in the introduction to the work. This way, the reader is forewarned, the examiner is not left questioning.

As suggested, some students may be frustrated by MLA8’s flexibility; there is no one right way to reference any particular kind of source. On the other hand, this flexibility, coupled with this same notion that there may be more than one correct way to present a reference, will liberate many and should make writing more enjoyable, free of the terrors of “correct” referencing.

My own approach to referencing is validated:

Be honest.
Be helpful.
Be consistent.

MLA8 is welcome indeed.

3 thoughts on “Back to basics – MLA8 revisited

  1. Great post, John. Thank you for taking the time to teach all of us about the updates. I’m still waiting for my book to arrive, it seems deliveries to China take a bit more time.

    • Thanks, Kathleen.

      I like that expression you used, “reset my brain.” This is a paradigm shift, it will take a lot of people much time to get their heads around. There ARE still formatting rules in MLA8 – but they match the containers, they are consistent – which they aren’t always in MLA7, nor in other style guides. It’s the inconsistencies which cause much of the frustration and turn change academic writing from a chance to promote one’s knowledge and arguments and awareness of the literature into a dull, tedious exercise, jumping through poorly understood hoops … with the added fear that if you get the formatting wrong then you are academically dishonest… Total nonsense, of course, but it’s a myth that persists…

      The template. The handbook includes this chart/form and recommends it as a practice sheet. So do I, as a reminder of the elements of different kinds of sources; the form will emphasise similarities, not differences (that’s a WOW thought too! I must remember this). Once writers recognise the elements and where they belong, how they fit in the container schema, and as they get practice, they will learn to build references… the similarities carry over to other referencing styles: different order of elements, perhaps, different punctuation, perhaps, but those elements help readers find the exact material and … they’re away. Not all elements apply every time for every source but they get the idea.

      You’re right, the template can be used and should be used in teaching and in practice. Maybe a copy in student diaries? Adapt it for different referencing styles.

      Sorry if this is long – you have inspired new thoughts.

      Cheers, all best wishes,


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