Citation styles–A guide for the perplexed

Citations… everyone’s favorite part of a research paper, am I right?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer or a writing tutor, it’s important to be familiar with the appropriate citation style when you’re working with a research paper. If a professor has specified a particular citation style in an assignment, make sure that the paper uses that style! Otherwise, stick with the style that feels most comfortable for the writer.

Here’s a brief summary of the differences between the major citation styles:

APA style is very date-focused. For this reason, it’s often used in the sciences because the date a work was published is more relevant to these disciplines than to the humanities. The basic form of APA in-text citations is Author (date) when the reference is woven into the sentence or (Author, date) when the reference is at the end of the sentence. When referencing more than one publication, the correct form at the end of a sentence would be (Author, date; Author & Author, date). Only use the author’s last name and use semicolons to separate the works. An “&” sign is used instead of the word “and” in a parenthetical citation to link multiple authors of the same work, but if you were to use the authors’ names in the main part of the sentence–for example, “Smith and Browning (2000) conducted a study”–you would use the word “and.”APA only requires page numbers when you are using an exact quotation from a work, and in that case they are inserted in the parenthesis like this: (Author, date, p. 1). The basic form for a book in the reference list is Author, A. A., Author, B. B., & Author, C. C. (Date). Title of book: Subtitle of book. Location: Publisher. Only capitalize the first word of a book title and the first word of the subtitle; everything else in the title is lowercase. Only titles of journals are in title case (i.e., with the “important words” capitalized). Obviously, there is far more to APA style than I can summarize in a paragraph, so I would recommend using a resource such as the APA Publication Manual. More online info can be found at or the Purdue OWL website.

MLA style is more people-focused than APA (which explains why it is favored by the humanities). MLA uses the author’s complete name the first time it appears in the body of the paper (parenthetical citations don’t count) and just the last name after that. MLA also requires page numbers for summaries and paraphrases as well as direct quotes. A typical MLA in-text citation would include the author’s name woven into the sentence and the page number in parenthesis afterward; alternately, at the end of the sentence it would look like (Author date). A reference in the Works Cited for a book would look like this: Author, Firstname. Title of Book: Subtitle of Book. Location: Publisher, year. Medium of Publication. For more information on MLA style, consult the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers or online sources such as the Purdue OWL.

Chicago is less common than the MLA or APA styles, but it is often used by history majors. Some people say that Chicago style combines elements of both APA and MLA in a flexible way, but I’m not as familiar with this citation style. However, I do know that in a paper Chicago will have footnotes and a bibliography or end notes and a bibliography, but no parenthetical citations. The bibliography is in alphabetical order and the end/footnotes are numbered in the order of their appearance in the paper. For more information on Chicago Style, try looking in The Chicago Manual of Style (or the website).

Citation-making websites such as EasyBib or BibMe can be useful tools for writers who are working on reference lists/works cited/bibliographies. However, it is important to be familiar enough with the citation style you are using that you can catch any errors (such as errors in capitalization, etc.) that may creep in. Make sure that the information is accurate, and remember that while these cites may be useful  tools, it is ultimately the writer’s job to make sure that citations are correct.


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