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Home > Campuses & Centers > Alexandria > Academic Divisions > Liberal Arts Division > MLA Documentation

MLA Documentation

Why Should I Document Borrowed Materials?

  • Documenting sources from which you borrow material is ethical. If someone spends a great deal of time and effort coming up with ideas and writing them down or even speaking them to you, you owe that person some gratitude. Cite the person as your source.
  • Documenting sources also shows your reader that you have done your homework. In other words, it says, "Hey look, I read this material. I know something about what I'm saying." And most of us want to listen to someone who has done his/her homework.
  • Documenting sources from which you are borrowing material is essential for you to avoid legal difficulties. Quite frankly, failure to document such material is literary stealing, which is referred to as plagiarism, literally meaning "kidnapping." Plagiarism may be a cause for you to flunk a course, to be suspended from a college or university, or to be prosecuted.

What Should I Document?

  • Any direct quotation (word-for-word phrasing) that you take from someone else's writing or speaking.
  • Any idea that you borrow from someone else, even if you put that idea into your own words. This type of borrowing -- putting someone else's idea into your own words is referred to as paraphrasing.
  • Any statistics, facts or data from any source.
  • In general, any material that you find in your reading or listening and use in a paper, speech, etc.

What Don't I Document?

  • Your own ideas, opinions, reactions to others' ideas, and, of course, your own creative work.
  • Something called common knowledge. Common knowledge is that body of knowledge and material that a writer can expect the audience of his or her paper to know, or have easy access to, because of their age, experience or education. It is also referred to as that body of knowledge that appears in numerous sources that are of a general nature. For instance, you need not document that John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. That's common knowledge; it can be found in numerous sources. However, if you are arguing that a conspiracy existed behind the assassination -- that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, then you must document material you find about your stance because this view is not generally held.
  • When you are in doubt about whether something is or is not common knowledge, play it safe and document it.

How Do I Document Borrowed Material?

The MLA (Modern Language Association) requires two forms of documentation: in-text (sometimes called parenthetical documentation) and a works cited page.

  • Normal in-text documentation requires that you put quotation marks around word-for-word passages (direct quotations) that you take from another source, followed by the author's last name and page number in parenthesis. However, this documentation is not confined to direct quotations. Any paraphrased material (see above) must also be rewritten in your own words and then documented in the same way as direct quotations, the only difference being that paraphrases do not appear in quotation marks because they reflect your own words, not the exact words of the author.

    For example, in your discussion, you make a comment about the anthologized version of the Scarlet Letter, and you wish to use a quotation to enforce your point. To do this, you quote the author of the work as saying that "the angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful" (Hawthorne 1149). Notice that "page" or "p" does not appear in the parentheses, just the number after the author's last name.

    For a source that is paraphrased (and in this case online), you would document it as follows: According to one writer, Richard Bausch's work consistently depicts women in a positive light. In fact, women are often the stronger characters in Bausch's short stories and novels (Langley). Because you've used your own words to convey the information, you do not need quotation marks. But be careful here. A paraphrase is not merely taking someone else's words and rearranging them in your sentence. The words must be in your own vocabulary and style. Think of it this way: a steak is one form of meat (the wording of the original source), and you put it through a meat grinder (your brain) to change its form into chopped beef (your paraphrased version). The meat (content) is the same beef, but the form of that beef (its style) must be different in a paraphrase. Also, be sure that you introduce a paraphrase properly (According to one writer)because without the quotation marks, it is difficult for a reader to know when the paraphrase begins. The parenthesis at the end will, with the critic's last name, will let the reader know when the paraphrase ends.

    Most online sources will not have a page number; therefore, just put the author's last name. However, if there is no author's name listed in the source, then list either the title of the article in quotation marks ("Bausch and Women") or the organization that posted the material without quotation marks (The Richard Bausch Society).

    For poetry, the documentation is a bit different. First, I will use a reference to an anthologized version of Beowulf; then I will use a reference to a separate text on Hamlet.

    The code of vengeance is emphasized by the anonymous poet of Beowulf, who has the hero of the poem state that "It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning" (1384-85).

    In the above documentation, the writer of the essay has introduced the quotation by stating that the author is unknown and by naming the poem. Since both pieces of information -- anonymous author and title of poem precede the quotation, they need not appear again in the parenthesis. Then the writer uses quotation marks around the quotation. Notice the virgule / also called a slash, to indicate where one line of poetry ends and another begins. A space separates "break" from the slash, and another space separates the slash from "to."

    The playwright then has the character Albany say that "Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile; / Filths savor but themselves. What have you done? / Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed?" (Shakespeare, King Lear 4.2.38-39).

    In the above quotation, neither the author or the title appears before the quotation; therefore, each appears in the parenthesis. Notice the standard quotation marks and virgule to separate the lines; then in parenthesis, the playwright's name is given, along with the work, italicized, and the act 4, the scene 2, and the lines within that scene, 38-39. Use this format 4.2.38-39, not IV.II.38-39.
  • Then you must include a works cited page--a separate page (the last page) of your essay. For example, the following are works cited entries, and notice that the second and succeeding lines of the citations are indented five spaces:

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Scarlet Letter." Anthology of American Literature

Volume I: Colonial Through Romantic. Ed. George McMichael. Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997. 1032-1150.

Killington, Katherine. "The Rise of the Romantic Novel in America." Nation 28
January 1999: 33-36.
Langley, Anne. "The Image of Women in Richard Bausch's Fiction."
24 March 1999. 5 October 1999.

An online note about the dates in the last source: the first date indicates when the source was posted on the Web. The second date indicates the day you accessed the source.