[citation needed]
April 26, 2011 2:34 PM   Subscribe

Do in-text citations made using MLA style necessarily include parentheses?

I'm embarrassed to say this, but there's something about using MLA style that continues to confuse me. It seems to me like an obvious and annoying problem with the system. So perhaps I'm missing something.

Of course a traditional in-text citation made using MLA style looks like this: "(Smith 24)". So, you'd know that the quotation was written by someone with the last name Smith, and a curious reader might turn to the "Works Cited" page, find the book or article written by someone with the last time "Smith," and then examine page 24 of that source to find the relevant discussion. That's the usual procedure.

But MLA style also states that if the author's name has already been mentioned, that it doesn't need to be included in the parentheses. So it would be proper to write "Jane Smith has argued, "blah blah, blah" (24)."

This would also allow you look up the source.

For me the problem arises in cases when the source's name is mentioned in-text and there is also no page number (a web source, for example). In a case like this, it would seem like neither a page number nor an author's name is required to be included in a parenthetical citation. So, presumably, there is simply no need for a citation at all--no parentheses at the end of the sentence or anywhere else.

But this is a problem for me. Because in cases like this, it can be unclear when an author's ideas are just being discussed in general terms, and when a reference to a particular work is intended. Without a parenthetical citation, it's impossible to know whether a sentence like "Smith has challenged this assumption." does or doesn't refer reader to an in item in the Works Cited page.

So, what I'm asking, then, is whether when using MLA style citations, it is in fact true that some "citations" will not include any parentheses at all. If this is true, how are readers supped to deal with the fact that there's no way to know when the author is and isn't citing texts?

I mean, shouldn't any reasonable documentation system insist on the use of a visual marker each and every time a citation is intended?
posted by doubtless to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

If your sentence does not make it clear when an author's ideas are being discussed generally versus when a particular work is being referenced, consider rewriting the sentence.
posted by box at 2:40 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

From FLAG's link, specifically, you want this part at the end, quoted below:

In-text citations for electronic sources are treated in most respects as print texts are. The only real difference occurs because electronic texts do not have page numbers (unless the source is in PDF format or otherwise mimics a print version of the source). Sometimes, numbered paragraphs appear on an electronic source. In such cases, use paragraph numbers instead of page numbers. The paragraph number should appear in your citation following the abbreviation par. If an electronic source includes section numbers or screen numbers, use those numbers after the word section or screen. Most often, however, the source will have no paragraph, section, or screen numbers. In such instances, include no number in the parentheses, as shown below:

The Collaborative Virtual Workspace (CVW) prototype is being used by

the Defense Department for crisis management (Davidson and Deus).
posted by brainmouse at 2:42 PM on April 26, 2011

MLA has provisions for alternatives to page numbers (paragraph or section numbers, for example). It is also fine with citations without parentheses (see the examples in section 6.4.2 of the 6th ed. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers):
Kurosawa's Rashomon was one of the first Japanese films to attract a Western audience.
If you're referring to a source it should always be listed in the 'works cited'. If you're referring to an author's whole body of literature rather than a particular source, write the sentence so that this is clear:
Most of Smith's work challenges this assumption; for example...
posted by Paragon at 2:47 PM on April 26, 2011

Best answer: I used to teach this to college freshmen professionally and this question came up more than once. In our case, students passed or failed the class based on the evaluations of outside readers, and we didn't want to confuse the outside readers, so I would always tell students that if it seemed ambiguous at all, to include a citation even if it seemed redundant. This also signals the reader that they can find a full citation in the Works Cited page. So, it might look something like:

Mark Jervis argues against the use of excessive parenteses (Jervis).

And you look at it and think, "That looks kind of dumb." But it's better than having your reader (especially if your reader has the power to grade, pass, or fail you) wonder who the heck Jervis is and how they can find out and whether you know how to do a proper in-text citation.

And, as the first answer says, a citation even of an author who has been named in the text can help show the boundary between when you're using source material and when you're not, and that is very important.
posted by not that girl at 2:56 PM on April 26, 2011

I would add, that another reason to do a parenthetical citation even if it seems illogical is that some graders in our system would skim the paper lookinig for parenthetical citations. I had students dinged for "not citing sources" when they left off parenthetical citations because all the info that might have gone into the citation was already in the text, as you describe.
posted by not that girl at 3:40 PM on April 26, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers. To clarify: I would definitely avoid this sort of ambiguity as a writer. But if I'm reading or evaluating the work of others, I'm never sure whether MLA technically requires that in-text parenthetical citations appear every time a text is cited.

Flag: the document you link to observes that no page#'s are needed for some documents, which doesn't really answer the question of whether a parenthetical citation is needed in cases where there is no page# and the author's name has already been mentioned.

not that girl: your advice makes sense to me. I just wish the MLA guidelines themselves were clearer on this point than I now understand them to be. It seems like the present rules permit a lot of ambiguity, of just the type you describe. Perhaps it's time for me to compose my a course style sheet that specifically addresses this issue.
posted by doubtless at 4:02 PM on April 26, 2011

I didn't realize you were faculty! I was always frustrated by this, too--it seems a common enough thing that you'd think MLA would address it.
posted by not that girl at 4:53 PM on April 26, 2011

I think you're right that there needs to be something to clearly indicate that the reader can look in the works cited to get more info on that area. There is no need to always use parentheses though. Just mention in a concrete way that you're using a source. Examples:

"The web article states that..."
"In her July 4 speech, Grace argued..."
"Bryson and Duke's dialog on this topic on Opera..."
"Google's terms of service page actually forbids..."

All of these things casually and concretely indicate that you're citing a source, and an interested reader will expect to be able to look in the back to find more info on that citation.
posted by brenton at 5:02 PM on April 26, 2011

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