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MLA: Using Sources Correctly

There are three main ways to uses sources in your research paper. You may quote. You may paraphrase. Or you may summarize. All three require an in-text (parenthetical) citation!

In-text Citations

You CANNOT use information from any website or published book unless you give the author (or site) credit--BOTH inside your text and at the end of your paper.  In other words, it is NOT enough to simply list the sources you used on a Works Cited Page or References List. 

As your instructor reads your essay, he or she should clearly be able to see which sentences, facts, or sections of your essay came from Source A, Source B, or Source C, etc. by looking at your in-text citations.

You can give credit to your sources within your text in two different ways: by using a signal phrase or by simply using an in-text citation. 

Signal phrase:  a signal phrase lets the reader know, right at the beginning of the sentence, that the information he or she is about to read comes from another source.

Example:  Your paper might say something like....According to John Smith (2006), author of Pocahontas Is My Love, "Native American women value a deep spiritual connection to the environment."

Notice that since I took a direct quote from John Smith's book, I placed those words in quotation marks.  Notice also that I placed the date that the book was published directly after the author's name in parentheses--this is proper APA format.  Finally, notice that because I explained WHO wrote the book and WHAT book it comes from, the reader is easily able not only to find the source on his/her own to check my facts, but the reader is also more likely to believe what I have to say now that they know that my information comes from a credible source.

For Web Sources: If I was using a particular website (instead of John Smith's book), the signal phrase would look exactly the same, but I would say "According to Pocahontasrules.com..."     

In-Text Citation:  Use an in-text citation in situations where you are not quoting someone directly, but rather using information from another source such as a fact, summary, or paraphrase to support your own ideas.

Example:  She stated, "Students often had difficulty using APA style," but she did not offer an explanation (Jones, 1998, p. 199).

Notice that it's clear within this sentence that I'm referring to a certain person's beliefs, but since this person's name does not appear at the beginning of the sentence, I have placed her name, the year that her article was published, and the page number where I retrieved this information in parentheses at the end of the sentence.

Information on how to format an in-text citation


Summarizing Sources

Summarize an article or a larger section of an article whenever you simply want to present the author's general ideas in your essay. 

How to Write an Effective Summary:  Cover up the original article, it is key that you not quote from the original work.  Restate what you've read in your own words, and be sure to give the author credit using an in-text citation. 

Example:  Congressman Joe Smith (2009) believes that our approach to reforming the healthcare system is backwards and costly.  He discusses our rising national debt in "Healthcare: Let's Talk" and lists several statistics to prove that Obama's new plan will only make things worse.

Summaries are most often used to condense larger texts into more manageable chucks. However, as a writer you should be aware that this more manageable chunks and easily become vague and weigh your paper down with fluff.

Paraphrasing Sources

Paraphrase your sources whenever you believe that you can make the information from a source shorter and/or clearer for your audience.  A paraphrase is NOT an exact copy of the original, simply changing a few words here and there is NOT acceptable. 

Take a look at these examples:     

The original passage from The Confident Student (6th ed.):  “Whatever your age, health and well-being can affect your ability to do well in college.  If you don’t eat sensibly, stay physically fit, manage your stress, and avoid harmful substances, then your health and your grades will suffer” (Kanar 158).  

A legitimate paraphrase: No matter what condition your body is in, you can pretty much guarantee that poor health habits will lead to a lack of academic success.  Students need to take time for their physical and emotional well-being, as well as their studies, during college (Kanar 158). 

A plagiarized version:  No matter how old you are, your well-being and your health can impact your ability to do a good job at school.  If you choose not to eat well, exercise, deal with stress, and avoid getting drunk, then your grades will go down (Kanar 158).

Because the art of paraphrasing is more concise than summarizing, a true paraphrase shows that you as a researcher completely understand the source work.

Quoting your sources

If you need help incorporating your sources into your essay, the first thing you'll need to remember is that quotes cannot stand alone--they can't be placed in a sentence all by themselves.  You need to make each quote a part of your essay by introducing it beforehand and commenting on it afterward.  

Think of each quote like a sandwich—the quote is the meat on the inside, but before you taste the meat, you must also be introduced to the sandwich by the bread. After you bite down on that meat, you need the other piece of bread to round out the meal.

The top piece of bread will tell us where the quote came from and/or how it fits in with what’s already been discussed in the essay.  The bottom piece of bread points out what was important about the quote and elaborates on what was being said.


Quoting FAQ’s

How do I use partial quotations to liven up my writing?

Be sure to introduce the author from the source work within the sentence itself  and use quotation marks. No comma is necessary to introduce the quoted phrase.

Example:

Margaret Reardon points out that today's economy cars are "better equipped" to handle accidents than the smaller cars of the past.

What are block quotations and how are they handled?

Block, or indent, quotations longer than four lines of type. When a quotation is indented, the use of quotation marks is not necessary, and the page number is included outside the ending punctuation.

Example:

Jordan stated:

Like many people who enjoy a leisurely pace of living with such attendant activities as reading, painting, or gardening, I often long for a simpler time, a time when families amused themselves by telling stories after supper, as opposed to watching Baghdad get bombed. (1)

Block quotes are indented by one inch, and should be used sparingly.

How do I punctuate shorter quotations?

For a quotation shorter than four lines, quotation marks are used and the page numbers fall inside the ending punctuation.

Example:

According to DR. Shannon Marcus:  "Many of our student's personal decisions will have the inherent dangers of instant gratification, and so will their political decisions," (548).

Do I use a comma or a colon to introduce a quotation?

A quotation is usually introduced by a comma or a colon. A colon precedes when a quotation is formally introduced or when the quotation itself is a complete sentence, but either no punctuation or a comma generally precedes when the quotation serves as an integral part of the sentence.

Compare:

Shelley argued thus: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

but

She thought poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

or

"Poets," according to Shelley, "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

or

Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" concludes: "A sadder and a wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn."

How do I correctly change a quotation to suit my purpose, such as to identify a pronoun?

Often, a quotation you wish to use includes a pronoun instead of a name. Since you must copy the quotation verbatim, you should insert the name after the pronoun to clarify who you are talking about. Use brackets (not parenthesis).

Example: "He [Clapton] got the chills when he listened to that material recently."

What if my quotation contains a mistake?

Additionally, if your source makes a “mistak”, you copy the mistake because direct quotations are copied verbatim. However, you indicate that the mistake is not yours by using [sic], which means "thus" and tells the reader that the error appears in the original.

Example:

The professor stressed that "if your source makes a mistak [sic], you should copy the mistake because direct quotations are copied verbatim."

If quotations are verbatim, how do I leave something out of a quotation that I do not need?

Use ellipsis marks if you wish to leave something out of the middle of a quotation (perhaps it is not needed or will make your quotation too long).

Original Source:

She states that

many of our students' personal decisions will have the inherent dangers of instant gratification, and so will their political decisions. Virtual reality will make it possible for them to program themselves into scenarios we now merely fantasize about. As a result, imagination itself will require a new definition. (1)

Quoted with ellipses:

She states that

many of our students' personal decisions will have the inherent dangers of instant gratification, and so will their political decisions. . . . As a result, imagination itself will require a new definition. (1)

Note 1: There are only three ellipses marks used in this sentence. A period also appears, indicating that one sentence ended before the word "As." If you had only left out a few words in mid-sentence, then you would not need a period.

Note 2: Do not change the meaning of the quotation when you leave out part of it!

Note 3: Notice that now that information has been removed from the middle of  the quotation, it is only three lines long. It should no longer be indented.

Use ellipsis marks ( . . . ) at the beginning and end of quotations only if necessary. It is not always necessary to do so, and too many will damage the flow of your essay. Use them sparingly.

If my source quotes somebody else, how do I indicate this?

When you have a quotation within a quotation, handle it this way:

Indented original (article by David Fricke appearing in Rolling Stone):

Clapton [Eric] got the chills when he listened to that material recently. It was the first time he had done so in over fifteen years. "It got too much for me," he says. "Old memories started coming back; old issues raised their head. I think of the people in that band and what happened to them." (qtd. in Fricke 26)

Notice that this quotation is indented because it is longer than four lines. Therefore, no quotation marks are used at the beginning or the end. The quotation marks that appear at the end are the result of needing quotation marks around Clapton's remark, not because the entire paragraph is a quotation. Notice also that the first line is indented an additional five spaces. That's because it's the first sentence in the paragraph in the original. If you begin a quotation in mid-paragraph, there is no indention.

Clapton's name does not appear on your Works Cited page as he is not your source. Fricke is the source. Therefore, Fricke's name should appear. Since Clapton is speaking, however, use "qtd. in" (quoted in) for clarification.

Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.

The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.

Answering Questions:  The Parts of an Essay

A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.

It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)

"What?"  The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.

"How?"  A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.

"Why?"  Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.

Mapping an Essay

Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.

Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:

  • State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
  • Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
  • Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ."  Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay. 

Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.

Signs of Trouble

A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University