Writing about Literature

Quotation, Citation, and Documentation

Citation and Documentation

In addition to indicating which facts, ideas, or words derive from someone else, always let your readers know where each can be found. You want to enable readers not only to "check up" on you, but also to follow in your footsteps and build on your work. After all, you hope that your analysis of a text will entice readers to reread certain passages from a different point of view.

At the same time, you don’t want information about how to find others’ work to interfere with readers’ engagement with your work. Who, after all, could really make sense of an essay full of sentences such as these: (1) "I know not ‘seems,’ " Hamlet claims in line 76 of Act 1, Scene 2, and (2) On the fourth page of her 1993 PMLA article (which was that journal’s 108th volume), Jean Wyatt insists that Morrison’s "plot . . . cannot move forward because Sethe’s space is crammed with the past."

To ensure that doesn’t happen, it is important to have a system for conveying this information in a concise, unobtrusive way. There are, in fact, many such systems currently in use. Different disciplines, publications, and even instructors prefer or require different systems. In literary studies (and the humanities generally), the preferred system is that developed by the Modern Language Association (MLA).

In this system, parenthetical citations embedded in an essay are keyed to an alphabetized list of works cited that appears at its end. Parenthetical citations allow the writer to briefly indicate where an idea, fact, or quotation appears, while the list of works cited gives readers all the information they need to find that source. Here is a typical sentence with parenthetical citation, as well as the works cited entry to which it refers.

In one critic’s view, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" explores "what great art means" not to the ordinary person, but only "to those who create it" (Bowra 148).

NOTE: Here, the parenthetical citation indicates that readers can find this quotation on page 148 of some work by an author named Bowra. To find out more, readers must turn to the list of works cited and scan it for an entry, like the following, that begins with the name "Bowra."

Sample Works Cited Entry

Bowra, C. M. The Romantic Imagination. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1950. Print.

This example gives a basic sense of how parenthetical citations and the list of works cited work together in the MLA system. Note that each parenthetical citation must "match up" with one (and only one) works cited entry.

The exact content of each parenthetical citation and works cited entry will depend upon a host of factors. The next two sections focus on these factors.

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