Finding Your Style: The Reasoning Behind Common Citation Styles

By Ellen Israel

Deciding on a citation style can be overwhelming. There are so many to choose from, and to make things worse, each one comes with a complex set of rules and idiosyncrasies. It would be much easier if you could write without worrying about the format of your works cited page or about the placement of headings. Citation styles aren’t even that important — after all, they’re only used to prevent plagiarism, right?

Actually, it’s more complicated than that. With each citation style comes a unique culture suited to specific disciplines. Once you understand what these cultures require from a citation, picking one becomes much simpler.

Perhaps the most familiar citation style to college students is MLA (Modern Language Association). MLA is appropriate for the humanities as there is an emphasis on the use of quotes. To cite a quote in MLA, the format is usually (author page). This format makes the location of the quote clear and easy to find and accredits the quote appropriately. Recency does not matter in an MLA-cited source, so the date of publication is not included in the in-text citation. Whether you are quoting a sonnet from the 16th century or one of the best-selling novels of the year, what matters is that you sufficiently analyze the quote in relation to your claim.

APA (American Psychological Association) is another common citation style and is used more often in the social sciences. APA puts more emphasis on the date the source was published. In APA, the format for an in-text citation is generally (author, date). Unlike MLA, APA requires the date of publication in the citation because the recency of the source matters. This style is most often used for research and scientific papers, so you want to be sure that your ideas are backed up by the most up-to-date scientific knowledge. The more recent your source information is, the more legitimate your claims.

Chicago is used in the social sciences, humanities, and history. This style differs from both MLA and APA in that there are two ways sources can be cited. You can use either the Notes-Bibliography (NB) system or the Author-Date system (which is similar to MLA). In the NB system, superscript numbers are used in place of parenthetical citations, and the reference information is listed at the bottom of the page in footnotes. In Chicago, the strength of your argument is bolstered by the credibility of your sources. This is especially true for the NB system since all the reference information is visible on the page.

Next time you are confused about which citation style to use, try asking yourself about what kind of culture you are writing for: Does it pride the use of quotes and their analysis or does the recency of your source matter most of all? Does the strength of your argument depend on the credibility of your sources or your analysis of them? By asking yourself these questions, you may discover more about what kind of writing you have to do in addition to what citation style you need to use.


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