When you cite your sources in the text of your writing project (what’s often called in-text citation), you need to give just enough information so that people can trace the quotation or image back to its source.
Usually that means providing the author and page number:
Boredom is sometimes seen as a threat to productivity in the work place. However, it has also been called the “single greatest cause of creativity and invention” (Jones 35).
The reader can then turn to your Works Cited page and find the complete citation:
Jones, Mark. “Boredom and Creativity.” The Causes of Boredom: A Collection of Essays, edited by Esther Yawn, Etcetera Press, 2017, pp. 34-49.
Of course, when the author and page number are not available, or you’ve used a source such as a play or poem, you will have to find other alternatives. Further down, we will review the options.
For now the main thing to realize is that the MLA guidelines promote an unobtrusive citation style. Your in-text citations should state only the most essential information. That way the reader can enjoy your writing without distraction.
How Much to Cite
When students first begin to do research, the tendency is to provide too much bibliographic information in the body of the text. Here is some advice about when to provide additional information.
First of all, try to keep page numbers inside the parentheses. There has to be a good reason to draw attention to a particular page. Here are some examples of where it makes sense to break the rule:
Pages 80-101 contain a beautiful series of photos of the author’s extended family.
For some reason, page 72 is missing in the manuscript
Yet just two pages further Susan Ballantyne argues the exact opposite.
The same thing is true for the title of your source. Don’t mention it unless you have a good reason. And here are some good reasons to include the title:
- You are discussing a primary source (as opposed to a secondary source)
- You are dealing with multiple works by the same author and need to differentiate them (e.g., in a comparative essay about two Shakespeare plays)
- You want to discuss the wording of the title (perhaps the phrasing is problematic)
- You want to focus more extensively on a particular source, or indicate a more extensive debt
- The work has no author and is known primarily by its title
Otherwise you can typically leave out the source’s title. The same applies to the rest of the publication information. Save it for your Works Cited.
The Basic Rules
Author and Page
As mentioned, the normal procedure is to cite just the author and page number (with a space in between):
As has been observed, “The mating rituals of the Australasian gannet are a model for us all” (Quack 92).
If the author or page has been mentioned in the text already, there’s no need to repeat it in parentheses:
As Herman Kuiper writes, “Zimbabwean origami is deeply influenced by the shape of the Victoria Falls” (109).
When the name is provided in parentheses, omit the first name. In the body of the text it is customary to give the full name for the first citation. After that you can often use just the last name.
Finally, place your citation as close to the quotation as possible:
Hannah Patton deplores “the use of the coat rack as a fashion statement” (4), especially as it is usually covered with coats.
You don’t have to wait till the end of your sentence before giving the citation.
Authors with the Same Name
If you are citing from multiple authors with the same last name, you can add some clarity by adding an initial (or the full name if the authors share initials):
As has been observed, “The mating rituals of the Australasian gannet are a model for us all” (I. Quack 92).
Use the full name when including it in the text rather than in parentheses.
Multiple Works by the Same Author(s)
If you are citing multiple works from the same author(s), you can add a short version of the title, either in the text or in parentheses:
As Bledsoe and Smith argue in “Misogyny,” Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 cannot be rescued from “a charge of anti-feminism” (18).
It has been suggested that the phrase interpersonal relationships is “rife with redundancy, for when is a relationship not interpersonal?” (Funke, Communication 3).
Notice that the title is italicized or placed in quotation marks just as it appears in the Works Cited. Also, if the parentheses contain the author and title, then add a comma before the title, but not after.
To shorten a title, look for a key noun phrase, or, if there is none, use the opening few words.
If a work is published by two authors, cite both:
The distance between one’s toes “may have an effect on self-esteem levels, especially among surfers and swimmers” (Lovegood and Sorenson 55).
For three or more authors, use the abbreviation et al. (Latin for “and others”):
Jane Austen’s villains are “either superficial Romantics or dissipated boors” (De Bourgh et al. 98).
Avoid using the abbreviation if you cite the authors in the text rather than the parentheses. Either cite all the authors or use a work around (e.g., “De Bourgh and others”):
De Bourgh and others argue that Jane Austen’s villains are “either superficial Romantics or dissipated boors” (98).
If a source lacks an author, cite it by its title instead. In the body of your text, you may use the full title (at least the first time), but in parentheses a short version is required:
The Dakar Rally: The Greatest Race on Earth provides a riveting account of the famous race, but it lacks any reference to the death toll.
The Dakar Rally has long been “one of the most dangerous races on earth” (Dakar Rally 42).
If there is no title or author, then use whatever descriptive phrase you have used in the Works Cited.
Missing Page Numbers
If a source has no page numbers, try use an alternative label. Here are some sample abbreviations you can use:
par. or pars. for paragraph or paragraphs
sec. or secs. for section or section
ch. or chs. for chapter or chapters
Here is what that looks like in practice:
Only one critic noted that “the most prominent aspect of Rostropovich’s playing was his baldness” (Baldwin, ch. 3).
As this example shows, if you provide both the author and label in parentheses, then separate them with a comma.
On the other hand, if your source has no numbers whatsoever, then leave out all numerical references:
This effect has been called the “Disneyfication of Winnie the Pooh” (Smith).
Don’t feel bad about giving only the author’s name (or a short title), and don’t start counting paragraphs or line numbers yourself.
For some sources you will want to provide a different numbering. Here are the most common examples:
Cite plays by act, scene, and line number:
1.2.15-16 (refers to act 1, scene 2, lines 15-16)
If the play is in prose and lacks line numbers, you may cite it by author and page number.
Audio and Video
Cite time duration in hours, minutes, and seconds:
02:03:27-29 (refers to 2 hours, 3 minutes, and 27-29 seconds)
Cite poems by line numbers:
After the first citation, you may omit the descriptive label (“line,” “scene,” etc.). Avoid abbreviations (e.g., ll. for lines)
If a source is published in multiple volumes, and you cite only one volume, you need provide only the page number. However, if you borrow from multiple volumes by the same author, provide the number of the volume as well as the page number(s):
It was the dreaded black fly that “did them in” (Irigano 4: 89-90).
This citation refers to pages 89-90 in volume 4. Make sure to add a space after the colon.
Common Prose Works
Let’s say you’re quoting from a famous novel like Brave New World. There are so many editions in print that your reader may have a difficult time finding a passage based on a page number alone. In such cases you can add more information at the end of your citation:
Huxley 87; chapter 8
If the source uses other numbering (e.g., sections), you can use that instead.
If you borrow an idea and put it in your own words, you are paraphrasing. In such a situation you may need to cite multiple authors whose work you have summarized. Separate them with semi-colons:
Some researchers believe that optimism can help patients heal faster, but that telling people to be happy is more likely to leave them depressed (Bile 59; Choler 44-46).
Sometimes you find the perfect quotation—the only problem is that it’s already a quotation in your source. In such cases you can use the description “qtd. in” (quoted in) to show where you found the passage:
As Ariana Humboldt notes, “a phobia of spiders can suggest an underlying fear or trauma” (qtd. in Kidney 221).
However, avoid using this method too frequently, or it will seem that you get all your best ideas second hand.
Should it happen that you repeatedly use the same source, you can slack off in how much you cite. In the following example, both quotations are from the same source. Since they come in quick succession, the author has decided to cite just once.
As Herman Kuiper writes, “Zimbabwean origami is deeply influenced by the shape of the Victoria Falls.” Kuiper sees the frequent origami reproductions of the famous waterfall as a paradoxical attempt to “capture what cannot be contained in art–namely, a flowing, ever-changing process” (109, 112).
This method is especially handy if an entire paragraph is indebted to a single source. Even if you do decide to provide a separate page number after each citation, you do not have to give the author’s name each time.
On the other hand, if another source intervenes, be sure to provide more clarity:
As Herman Kuiper writes, “Zimbabwean origami is deeply influenced by the shape of the Victoria Falls” (109). In fact, most scholars agree that such paper reproductions represent “the archetype of African origami” (Sinderbad 24). Nevertheless, the shape or image is hardly static. Kuiper sees the frequent origami reproductions of the famous waterfall as a paradoxical attempt to “capture what cannot be contained in art–namely, a flowing, ever-changing process” (112).
In this example, the quotation from Sinderbad comes in between the two passages from Kuiper.
In summary, the basic rule is that if you think a reference is clear enough then you can give less information about its source.
This page does not cover every single rule for in-text citation. When you work with particular texts you may come across other ways of citing information (e.g., cantos, chapter and verse, etc.). Part of learning the rules for citation is about adapting to the customs of your discipline.
Now that you know the basic rules for in-text citation, you may want to check out our more extensive guide to integrating quotations (part 1 and part 2). It follows the MLA guidelines and will teach you everything from citing poetry to using ellipses and block quotations.
For more information about in-text citation, see chapter 6 of the MLA Handbook (9th ed.).