When to cite

Other writing tips:

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:

  3. An interpretation, opinion, or judgment from another source, even if put in your own words.

  5. 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.) You can find more information on the details of MLA citation style here. MLA 8th edition has several important differences from earlier standards. City and medium of publication are no longer required. If the source is included in a larger publication, that publication is called the "container" but does not have to be a book. Here are the order of bibliographic elements in MLA, though not all elements will be appropriate for all sources: Author, source title, container title, other contributors, version or edition, number, publisher, publication date, pages. Titles of large-scale sources or containers (books, websites, journals, extended artworks, etc.) should be in italics. Titles of shorter works or works within containers (articles, individual web pages, songs, etc.) should be in double quotation marks. Here are brief schematics and examples of entries as they should appear on the Works Cited page:

Book example: Author(s). Title. Publisher, Year.
Fink, Robert. Repeating Ourselves: American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice. University of California Press, 2005.

Journal article: Author(s). "Title of Article." Title of Journal. Volume issue, date, pages.
Cronon, William. "Only Connect...: The Goals of a Liberal Education." The American Scholar. Vol. 67 no. 4, Autumn 1998, pp. 73-80.

Article or story in book: Author(s). "Title of Article." Title of Container. Ed. Editor's Name(s). Publisher, Year, Pages.
Rockwell, John. "Robert Wilson's Stage Works: Originality and Influences." Robert Wilson: The Theater of Images. Ed. Byrd Hoffman Foundation. Harper and Row, 1984, pp. 10-31.

One way to acknowledge a source is with an introductory statement in the body of the text: "O'Connor 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 Revolution (9)." In scholarly writing, this sort of introduction is only necessary if you have reason to reference the author in the body of the text. You usually do not have to include the title of the article or other bibliographic information, because that information is already in the works cited list. In a scholarly paper, you do not have to list credentials or the background of cited authors unless that information is directly relevant to the text.

Gray Areas

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.

Non-specific References

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 and banality...'"

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).

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 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. Although factual information is sometimes necessary background and can be used to support an argument, points in a paper are usually interpretive and analytical. You should present evidence to support your points, but they are usually 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.