MLA9 already – and already mixed feelings

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it does not seem long since the Modern Language Association published its 8th edition (MLA8) – but I see that it was released as much as 5 years ago, April 2016. Now, next month sees publication of MLA9, the 9th edition of the MLA Handbook – and yesterday MLA hosted a webinar preview of the new edition.

I well remember my excitement and delight, as that edition seemed revolutionary (as I wrote in MLA8 – new edition of MLA Handbook and Back to basics – MLA8 revisited).  Instead of presenting lots of rules and variations from and exceptions to the rules in an attempt to include all types of known (and unknown) source, format, medium, platform and more, we were given a template to follow with which we could build the references which informed our lists of Works Cited, while still being faithful to the rationale and the principles of academic referencing and supporting our readers.  This was empowering, it was liberating.

The principles of MLA8 citation and referencing 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 (MLA8, pp. 3-4).

Short, sweet, delightful. And they can be applied to any academic referencing style.

The MLA8 template used the notion of containers, allowing the building of a reference by working outwards from the source actually used to the “container” which included that source and to one or more further “containers.” The template is similar to that used by APA in its Publication Manual (Who, When, What, Where) but with even more structure.

When writers understand the principles of referencing and by building on the template, they can present consistently-formatted references which help the reader appreciate and understand the source/s used, with enough information to enable them to track it down themselves.

By keeping the number of examples to a minimum and also by focusing on references and citations, MLA8 was half the size of MLA7, 145 pages as against the 292 pages of MLA7.  I was delighted. It appears that many MLA users were less pleased.  It seems that the 9th edition runs to more than 400 pages and once again provides hundreds of examples, attempting to cover every type of source in every medium, in every format.

Publishers’ style guides are about more than citing and referencing, of course. They attempt to provide guidance on matters such as punctuation and spelling, capitalization, use of foreign terms, use of language (including inclusive language), formatting of papers including indenting and size of margins, size and style of fonts, use of headings and sub-headings and much much more – including use of other people’s words and work and ideas – so that their publications are consistent, at least within each publication. Writers can write to the house style of the publication for which they are writing.

One reason for the relative shortness of MLA8 was that these extra elements of house style were omitted, MLA8 is mainly about referencing and citation, the use of other people’s work.  MLA9 once more provides this extra guidance.

It appears that provision of references for the list of Works Cited is still based on the three principles of MLA8 – but with examples galore.  I am not sure if this is good or bad.

It will be good if there is still freedom to build references, to decide which elements to include and which might be included (and what might be unnecessary), depending on the level of writing and the audience.  As well as the three principles, the template also still applies.

It will not be good if those teaching and requiring MLA references and citations do not accept or are unaware of options and exceptions.

It will be damaging if students and writers generally are expected to thumb through the handbook looking for the exact example on which to base their references – and disastrous if variance from the style of the example is penalized or punished.  This last approach makes referencing a chore, takes away from the joy of research and writing, of demonstrating or showing off to readers the (dare I use the terms?) professionalism and scholarship of academic work.  It will be even worse, of course, of students are expected to remember the reference pattern for any and every type of source they might use, without recourse to the handbook.

I placed my order for the new edition several months ago. Not long to wait now.  I have to admit I am not as excited about the imminent publication of MLA9 as I was about MLA8.  We shall see.   I will report further. Watch this space!

4 thoughts on “MLA9 already – and already mixed feelings

  1. I too am waiting to see and though I will be glad not to have to keep referring to MLA 7 for style information or going to the website, it does seem a shame that there couldn’t be two volumes. As I was watching the webinar, I couldn’t help thinking about my youngest students and what the best way to start them on their referencing journey might be. There is so much to learn and I find that even my grade 12s still can’t recognise a journal article when they come across one. I wish someone would come up with scaffolded lessons for grades 6-10 (years 7-11). And then there are the teachers, who seem to have forgotten their own journey and how long it took, and who come down so hard on their students. So much to ponder.

    • That is an interesting thought, Susan, the notion of two volumes. One worth pursuing in all style guides (which deal with house style as well as citing and referencing), not just MLA?

      A good point – when even college/ university students cannot distinguish a journal article from other types of web page, what chance do middle years students have? Have you read Greer and McCann’s article, Everything Online is a Website: Information Format Confusion in Student Citation Behaviors?

      And your last point is so pertinent too; the teachers who cannot learn a new style, stuck with the style they remember (and mis-remember) from college years before, but who see no problem in students having to learn four or five different styles, often from scratch, for their various school subjects…

      Much to ponder indeed. J

  2. The essence in any style is that it should have enough elements for the reader to follow the trail, and have internal consistency, rather than any fuss about punctuation or order. I too think it’s a pity to try and have every variation taken care of and again move towards looking at the trees rather than the wood.
    The only change in MLA I’ve ever wanted to see has been a date added to in-text citations!

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