citation styles

Making Citations Easy

Too many students have been trained into stressing out about the minutiae of citation styles. They worry that a misplaced comma, or an underline instead of an italicized string of words, will bring their grade down or fail them on a paper. Fretting about MLA, Chicago or ASA style takes up more of their time than deciding whether this source actually helps them support their argument.

This is patently ridiculous!

There are literally hundreds of citation styles, and no student can memorize the specifics of more than ten or twelve of them. Nor should they be required to do so! Storing that kind of information outside your head is far better than crowding your brain with it. It’s only important when you’re actually citing.

Instead of learning how to do things “in MLA format” or “in Chicago style,” why not learn the underlying logic of citations, why they are the way they are, and what information they’re communicating to your reader?

What Citation is For

Citation is designed to do two main things for your reader:

  1. Give credit to a source for its ideas and/or words.
  2. Direct the reader to where they can find the source if they need to read it for themselves.

For example: (Sanford 2015:8) indicates a work by Sanford in 2015 and that the idea you cited is on page 8 of that work. Then you need to make sure that the reader can find that work by giving its bibliographic information in the works cited page: Sanford, Adam G. 2015. Writing for College (8-10).

That’s it. That’s all that citation is for. That’s the underlying logic.

Everything else about citation is just stylistic differences. To help you understand the specific ways in which your professor wants you to cite, go to Google and type in “AAA style sheet” with the name of the citation style in place of the “AAA,” in quotation marks.  There are style sheets online that can help you understand the differences between how MLA style wants you to present this information, and how APA style does. And yes, the formatting of a citation is somewhat functional, in that it often indicates to the reader whether the source was a journal article, a newspaper article, a book, an edited chapter, a web page, or some other source.

But let’s be honest, here: a misplaced period or a non-italicized title should not bring more than a quick note of correction. A student’s grade should not be riding on that line.

One way to deal with citation styles is to make a list of the important components from each source, and create a document with the formatted work cited and inline citations for each of your sources ready to go. This way, you can just copy them from that document and paste them into place in your paper when it’s time to cite. But how do you figure out what the important components are?

The Pattern of Citation Styles: Three Source Types

Nearly every citation style has a citation format for a journal article, a book, and a book chapter. Remember that every work cited citation contains the same major components:

  • For a journal, you will need to know:
    • the names of the author or authors
    • the year of publication
    • title of the article
    • title of the journal
    • volume and issue information for the journal
    • page numbers of the article.
  • For a book, you will need to know:
    • the names of the author or authors
    • year of publication
    • page numbers of your citation
    • title of the book
    • publisher of the book
    • location of the publisher.
  • For a book chapter, you will need to know:
    • the names of the author or authors
    • the year of publication
    • chapter number
    • page numbers
    • title of the book
    • title of the chapter
    • publisher of the book
    • location of the publisher
    • (if it’s an edited volume) the names of the editor or editors

Some – not all – citation styles also demand things like the DOI number or the URL. You should only use the URL if you found the citation in an online source like a web page. If you have a scanned article that was originally in a print journal, don’t include the URL or the DOI.

Once you’ve identified these components in your citation, then you just have to find out how the citation style formats (italics, bold, quotations, underlining) and organizes (what order do they go in?) those components. After that, the only job is to format and organize them that way.

Let’s say you have an article called “The Problem With Citations,” which was published in 2008 in the Journal of Social Writing, volume 22, issue 3, pages 220-231. Let’s say that the authors are David A. Jones and Margie L. Smith.

The ASA (American Sociological Association) format for this journal article looks like this:

Jones, David A. and Margie L. Smith. 2008. “The Problem With Citations.” Journal of Social Writing 22(3):220-231.

For the same citation, the MLA (Modern Language Association) format for a journal article looks like this:

Jones, David A., and Margie L. Smith. “The Problem With Citations.” Journal of Social Writing 22:03 (2008): 220-231. Print.

Chicago Style, on the other hand, formats journal articles like this:

Jones, David A. and Margie L. Smith. 2008. “The Problem With Citations.” Journal of Social Writing 22 (3): 220-231.

In the same way, every inline (in-text) citation has the same major components: author or authors’ last name, the year of publication, and page numbers. Again, your only issue is to find out how the citation style formats and organizes these components, and then format and organize them in that way.

For the article listed above, the in-text citations for each of the three citation styles are:

ASA: (Jones and Smith 2008:223). This citation goes after the quoted or paraphrased material, never before it.

MLA: (Jones and Smith 223). Again, this citation goes after the quoted or paraphrased material.

Chicago style uses a footnote or an endnote, not an in-text citation. The first footnote for a Chicago style citation should look like this (the number at the beginning is the footnote number):

  1. David Jones and Margie Smith, “The Problem With Citations,” Journal of Social Writing 22 (2008): 224.

Footnotes for the same source later in the paper should be short-form (names, a shortened version of the title, and the specific page number):

2. Jones and Smith, “The Problem,” 225.

In Chicago style, if you cite the same source twice in a row, the last footnote citation is even shorter:

3. Ibid., 227.

Tying It Together

Yes, citations are important. They’re the best way to give credit to your sources, and without them, you’re plagiarizing. The particular citation style your professor wants, however, should not frighten you – it’s just a task you need to complete when you write a cited paper. It might be an annoying task, but once you’re done, you can relax – you gave credit where credit is due, and that’s the important part.

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