BigDog's Grammar

MLA Quick Guide

So you just figured out how to "bluff your way" through any general writing task and were feeling pretty good. Now your teacher's handed you a research project, and you have to go to the library to look stuff up! Even worse, you're supposed to use some kind of "Quotation Mechanic's" guide to show where you got your information . . . and you don't even know what a "quotation mechanic" is.

Well, you are I guess. But your teacher's talking about quotation mechanics, a method of indicating any outside material that you include in your paper. If you do it right, you can freely use other people's words and ideas--and you won't get accused of cheating.

To get started, check out the introductory Frequently Asked Questions included below and then follow whatever links you need.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Why worry about quotation mechanics anyway?
  2. What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?
  3. What in the heck is MLA?
  4. What is the difference between "quoting," "paraphrasing," "citing," and "documenting"?
  5. Exactly what is plagiarism?
  6. How do I indicate where I found a quote?
  7. What's a "Works Cited" page? How do I write one?

Why worry about quotation mechanics? Return to FAQ

Primary and Secondary Sources Return to FAQ

With most beginning writing, you are the primary source, drawing upon your own memories, observations, and experiences as you shape your paper. (When writing about literature, the primary source is the short story, novel, poem, or play that you are writing about.)

Anything that you include in your paper that is not from you (or the piece of literature that you are working with) is considered a secondary source.

MLA Return to FAQ

MLA refers to the Modern Language Association, a group whose guidelines are the basis of the information you'll find here. If you're writing a paper for an English class, chances are you will need to use these when putting together any research project. There are other ways to package research material (e.g., APA, CBE, Chicago) . However, the ideas behind how and when to document a source are quite similar. If there's a question about which style to use, check with your instructor.

Terms Return to FAQ

You'll often hear people use "citing" and "documenting" to mean the same thing. I do! But don't worry too much about the proper definitions of these terms. As long as you get the idea, it doesn't matter what you call this.

Plagiarism Return to FAQ

Plagiarism is just plain cheating. It's using someone else's words or ideas in your paper as if they were your own. If you copy someone else's work on purpose, you know that it's wrong. However, if you don't understand how to cite another's work and accidentally plagiarize, you may still get accused of cheating. That's one good reason to learn quotation mechanics.

Avoiding Plagiarism
The following examples should give you some idea about the difference between proper research writing and plagiarism. (For more on the mechanics of "how" to cite, click here.)

First, here is an example of original reference material from Walter Allen's The English Novel, New York: Dutton, 1954, followed by three student versions. Only Version C is correct.

Original material:

Wuthering Heights is the most remarkable novel in English. It is perfect, and perfect in the rarest way: it is the complete bodying forth of an intensely individual apprehension of the nature of man and life. That is to say, the content is strange enough, indeed baffling enough, while the artistic expression of it is flawless. (Allen 223)

Student Version A:

The most remarkable novel in English is Wuthering Heights. It brings forth an individual apprehension of the nature of man and life; therefore, it is perfect in the rarest way. The artistic expression is flawless, but the content is strange, indeed baffling.

This is clearly plagiarized. The student has copied the original almost word for word, and there is no attempt to indicate what has been copied or where it was found.

Student Version B:

Wuthering Heights is a great English novel. It is perfect in the rarest way: it provides an individual apprehension of man's nature. The artistic expression is flawless, although the content is strange and baffling. (Allen 223)

This is a little better, but it is still an example of plagiarism. Even though an attempt has been made to indicate the source, we can't tell which words were copied directly. (Remember: just because you move the word order around a little or leave a word or two out, that doesn't make it your writing or your ideas. You still have to document.)

Student Version C:

Walter Allen insists that the "artistic expression" of Wuthering Heights is flawless (223). Allen admits that the content is strange and even baffling, but he argues that the novel is perfect because it accurately presents "an intensely individual apprehension of the nature of man and life" (223).

Here the student has correctly handled the use of the original. Some words are rephrased, but those taken word for word are clearly marked. Also, it is clear what source is being used.

Citation Mechanics Return to FAQ
 (and other picky stuff)

Accurately citing your sources is important--and, I hate to say it, boring. You've got to make certain that you've got all the required information and that you've put every comma and period in the right place. There's really no need to worry about memorizing any of what you find here. Leave room for the important stuff! Simply look through a print or online reference, find a model for the kind of information you're working with, and follow it. Now, take a deep breath, and let's get started!

Whenever you cite text, you must make certain that you have identified the author's name and the location of the quotation. The MLA uses an internal parenthetical style, so you don't need any numbers for footnotes (and best of all you don't need to worry about leaving space on your page for the footnote itself!)

The type of information you need to locate the quote varies according to genre:

Note: when citing page or line numbers, you should have two numbers to the right of the hyphen:
(25-27) not (25-7), or (100-01) not (100-1). However, where logically required, you may need three numbers: (99-101).


Notice the different ways the following passage from D. W. McPheeters' Camilo José Cela can be introduced into your text:

After twenty-five years, La familia de Pascual Duarte continues to attract attention. The extent of its influence can be measured by the number of articles about it--not all favorable--which are printed, some, in fact, even giving plausible evidence that it is a bad novel. (31)

Version 1:
According to D. W. McPheeters, Cela's first novel, La familia de Pascual Duarte, "continues to attract attention" (31).

Version 2:
One critic has suggested that Camilo José Cela's first novel "continues to attract attention" (McPheeters 31).

In both versions, all the necessary information is provided. In the first, you would never include the author's name in parentheses because you have already included it in the text. In the second, it is needed because the author is not identified in the text.

Quotations should be used selectively, and, generally, it is not a good idea to use many lengthy quotations. You should focus as much as possible upon the specific words which prove your point. However, if a prose quote should run for more than four lines of your text, you must set it off in block form. (The block form is used in the original McPheeters passage above.)

Remember that with the block form you never use quotation marks (unless they appear in the cited text itself). You have visually separated the quoted text from the body of the paper; the use of quotation marks would be overkill. When you incorporate the quotation into the body of your text, the period comes after the parentheses. When you use the block form the period comes before the parentheses.


With quotations of poetry, the mechanics are a bit different. When you incorporate the quote within the body of your text, you must use a slash mark to indicate line breaks. Consider, for example, the following from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses":

That Ulysses is dissatisfied with his life is evident when he tells us "I cannot rest from travel; I will drink / Life to the lees" (6-7).

You may use up to three lines of poetry in this manner. If a passage includes more than three lines, you must set it off in block form. Unlike prose in block form, poetry must be copied exactly as it appears in your source.

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; (6-9)

Note that with the block form, no slash marks are used.


With drama you use either of the above forms, depending on whether the play is in verse or prose. If a play is divided into acts and scenes (e.g., Hamlet), you indicate them in parentheses like this: (1.2.25). [This means act 1, scene 2, line 25.] Always use arabic numerals, and notice that you don't capitalize either "act" or "scene."

Other Picky Stuff

Sample title page

The "Works Cited" page Return to FAQ

What I've included here are examples of the sources most often used by beginning writers. If you can't find a model for the kind of information you need to document, take a look at one of the following:

Remember what I said about citing information in the body of your paper?

"There's really to need to worry about memorizing any of what you find here. Leave room for the important stuff! Simply loook through a print or online reference, find a model for the kind of information you're working with, and follow it."

The same goes here.

Citation models

The "Works Cited" page includes the full bibliographic information for every primary and secondary source that you quote from in the paper. The idea is that based on the parenthetical information provided in the body of your paper, we can find the full reference to your source on this page. Below are examples which show you the information you need for each type of source, as well as its placement. Please note: the models below do not show the proper spacing or indenting. For a sample of how the "Works Cited" page of your paper should look, click here.

Remember: your "Works Cited" page entries must be arranged alphabetically!

A model for citing Internet materials

An acceptable form for citing information taken from this Web site, for example, is:

Foll, Scott. "Big Dog's Quotation Mechanics." 26 April 1997.      <> (28 April 1997).

The format for citing any URL (Web address) is: Author's name (if known). "Title." Date of last update or revision. <URL> (Date of your accessing the page).

[The spacing and indenting follow the model found on the sample "Works Cited" page below.]

A form for citing Email is:

Foll, Scott. <> "Re: your question." 28 April      1997. Personal Email. (29 April 1997).

For more on electronic citation, see the reference mentioned above.

Sample "Works Cited" page

The major references for further questions are listed above. However, if you have a specific quotation mechanics question, write to me (click on my name below).

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