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Common Misconceptions in Citing in MLA and APA Styles

Common Misconceptions in Citing in MLA and APA Styles

One of the most common problems a student faces is how to document sources properly. Professors and teachers are often pretty strict about it, and with good reason: Making sure your readers know where you got the information in your papers is an important part of scholarly research. Two of the most common ways to document are the styles of the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). Unfortunately, they are also the two styles that students most often do wrong.

Both MLA and APA styles have large manuals that lay out every conceivable type of source you would ever need to document, but there are a few key principles that once you learn will make using either style a breeze.

First, let's start with the bibliography at the end of a paper. In MLA style, this is called a "Works Cited" list. In APA, it's called "References." They are the list of all the sources you cited in your paper. The two styles give entries a little differently. See if you can spot the differences. First, MLA:

Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Now APA:

Stevenson, D. (2004). Cataclysm: The First World War as political tragedy. New York: Basic Books.

As you can see, MLA uses an author's whole name, underlines titles, and puts the year at the end of an entry. APA uses only an author's first initial, italicizes titles, and puts the year right after the author's name. APA also capitalizes book and article titles like sentences instead of like titles. So: APA-year comes second. MLA-year at the end. Both styles also cite websites a little differently. Again, MLA first, then APA:

"Recipes for the Vegan/Vegetarian Diet." VegWeb. 2005. 15 May 2005. <>.

Recipes for the vegan/vegetarian diet. (2005). Retrieved May 15, 2005, from

The most important thing to remember here is that you need to give more than just a web address. You need to provide an author (if any-there isn't one in the above example), a title, and some publication information, like the year of publication. You'd be surprised how many students think a URL alone is good enough! Since in a paper you can't click the link to see what it is (and who said it will still be there?), that won't cut it.

Now, let's take a look at the citations you use in-text. There is one key rule to remember: an in-text citation needs to match the bibliography entry so readers can find your source in the list. This just means that in both MLA and APA styles, your in-text citation should begin with the first word or words you see in the bibliography entry for that source, whether it's the author's name or the title. Let's look at both our examples in MLA style:

(Stevenson 53)    ("Recipes")

And now in APA:

(Stevenson, 2004, p. 53)      ("Recipes," 2005)

As you can see the biggest difference is that APA uses the year in the citation and MLA does not. But here's the important part: looking at the citations, you can scan down a bibliography and find the source by matching the first word ("Stevenson" or "Recipes"). One other difference is that in APA style, you only need to give a page number when you are quoting. Otherwise, just the name and year are needed, like this (Stevenson, 2004). However, in MLA you must always give page numbers, unless the document doesn't have any.

Lastly, let's clear up a few misconceptions about in-text citations. First, if there is no author, you use the title of the work in the citation, like in the recipe example above. If there is no year given, in MLA leave it out, but in APA use the abbreviation "n.d." for "no date," like this: (Erickson, n.d.). If there are no page numbers in the document, do make them up. Simply omit them from the citation, again like the recipe example. Finally, web sites are cited just like anything else-by author or by title, not by URL. Do not give web addresses instead of a citation.

So, now you know the differences between MLA and APA and the common mistakes students make citing their sources. You have no excuse not to get it right now!

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