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How to Do Citations?

Laura Lohman, Monica Wemyss
  • Author
    Laura Lohman

    Laura Lohman has taught university arts and humanities courses for over 10 years. She has a PhD in the history of music (University of Pennsylvania), MS in Human Resources and Organization Development (the University of Louisville), and BM in music performance (Indiana University). She holds senior human resources, affirmative action, and project management certifications.

  • Instructor
    Monica Wemyss
Learn about different types of citations used in writing. Discover how to write citations, how to create in-text citations and the importance of using citations. Updated: 11/08/2021

What Are Citations in Writing?

Citations are used in academic writing to let the reader know the source of ideas, opinions, and language the author has drawn from others and incorporated into a text. Citations are required when a person incorporates facts and information obtained from another source. But, they are not essential when mentioning a fact that is common knowledge. Citations should be used when directly quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing, or referencing someone else's work.


Citations let readers know who created the information, ideas, or language quoted in an essay or paper.

Inspiring quotation with author name

What Is an In-Text Citation?

In-text citations are parenthetical references used in sentences in the body of a paper or essay to let the reader know the source of the information, opinion, or language used in the sentence. Inside parentheses, the author and the year of publication of the source are mentioned. Sometimes, it is along with the page number from which the information, opinion, or language was taken.

Citations

When you are writing, sometimes you want to use a fact that you didn't find out for yourself. For example, you might want to use the fact that the planet Earth is 238,855 miles from the moon, but you're not super-thrilled about the idea of building your own spaceship and flying up to check for yourself. That's where citations come in.

In academic writing, you can look up someone else's measurement of the distance between the earth and the moon, and then use it in your own work with a citation. A citation tells the reader where you got information or an idea from. It's a way to credit other people for putting in the hard work of actually flying to the moon to check so you don't have to. Here are some example sentences that could be in your paper:

  • According to NASA, the earth is 238,855 miles from the moon (NASA Space Place).

  • Experts in astronomy agree that the moon and the earth are ''really far apart'' (NASA Space Place).

You have to cite every fact in your paper that you found out from someone else, unless the fact is common knowledge. For example, you don't have to cite the fact that Washington, D.C., is the capital of the USA: everyone knows that. But, you do have to cite the fact that Congress first met in Washington, D.C., on November 17, 1800, because most people don't know that. When in doubt - cite. You will never get in trouble for citing something unnecessarily, but you can get in trouble for not citing when you should have.

Also, use citations any time you quote someone else's words or use someone else's ideas. Here are some more examples:

  • Winston Churchill has a very high opinion of the Duke of Marlborough, referring to his ''genius…in the field and his sagacity in counsel'' (Churchill 38).

  • Winston Churchill strongly approved of Queen Anne's decision to place the Duke of Marlborough in supreme command of her armies (38).

Academic books can have thousands of citations, so everyone wants to keep them short. So, we've come up with several ways to squeeze all the information you need into short, easy-to-read citations. In this lesson, you'll learn two major ways to cite sources: APA style and MLA style. It does feel really nitpicky at first, and it's kind of annoying to pay attention to, but it's important to give other people credit for their ideas.

In both MLA and APA styles, you'll have a bibliography at the end of your paper. The bibliography lists every single source you took facts or ideas from, with enough information that the reader can find the exact same source. Then, in your in-text citations, refer readers to particular works in the bibliography and tell them where to look within each work. For APA, you'd label this page 'References' but for MLA, you'd label this page 'Works Cited'.

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How to Write Citations

When writing citations for a paper or essay, two kinds of citations are used:

  1. In-text citations appear throughout the paper
  2. Longer citations are grouped together at the end of the paper, in a Reference List or Works Cited page.

Citations in a Reference List or Works Cited page typically include the author's name, the title of the source, publisher, and date of publication. Depending on the citation style and format of the source, the place of publication and URL may also be included.

While in-text citations are relatively similar when referring to a book, article, or other types of media in the body of a paper, the longer citations are different. To understand how to do citations for these types of sources correctly, a writer consults a citation style guide. Online citation style guides can be found on university websites, like Purdue University's Online Writing Lab.

There are several ways that a writer can create citations. Citations can be typed directly in a word-processing application. Alternatively, word-processing applications may include a citation tool that can assist a writer in formatting citations. Stand-alone online citation generators and reference management software can also help a writer create citations. Citation generators include CitationMachine and Opendemia. Reference management software such as Zotero can also create citations. Writers need to check automatically generated citations for accuracy, however. Aspects of citation style, such as capitalization, may not be produced correctly by online citation generators.

How to Make In-Text Citations

In-text citations are parenthetical references that are added to sentences in the body of a paper or essay to let the reader know the source of the information, opinion, or language used in the sentence. In-text citations typically include only 2 or 3 pieces of information, such as the author's last name, year of publication, and/or page number. This information is sufficient for the reader to locate the corresponding longer citation in the Works Cited page or Reference List.

To understand how in-text citations are created, it is essential to know what style or type of citation is appropriate for the paper. Each discipline has a citation style that is commonly used. The instructions for a paper typically indicate which citation style is appropriate.

Types of Citations

Several different systems are used to format citations. Common systems are MLA, APA, and Chicago style. Each subject or discipline tends to use one of these systems more often than other systems. In all these systems, a parenthetical reference is placed inside a sentence, and the period comes at the end of the sentence.

MLA Format Citations

MLA is the acronym for the Modern Language Association. MLA citation style is used in English and humanities. MLA in-text citations include the author's last name and the page number from which the information, paraphrase, or quotation was taken.

  • The bones of 60 mammoths were excavated from the airport construction site in Mexico (Williams 17).

When the author's name is mentioned in the sentence, it will not be repeated in the in-text citation:

  • As Williams explained, it came as a shock to the construction workers to see the bones (17).

When information is drawn from two different sources written by the same author, a shortened version of the title is added to the in-text citation after the author's name and before the page number. A comma is inserted before the title.

  • The mammoths may have gotten stuck in a muddy lake (Williams, Discovery 41).
  • Prehistoric animal remains had previously been located at the construction site of a beach-side resort (Williams, Prehistorical Animals of Mexico 8).

When the author is named earlier in the sentence, the author's name is omitted from the in-text citation, thus including only the shortened title and page number.

  • Williams hypothesized that the mammoths may have gotten stuck in a muddy lake (Discovery 41).

For a source with two or three authors, both their last names are listed, with the word 'and' inserted before the last one:

  • Archaeologists have made important discoveries in Central America over the last two decades (Martin and Bates 27).
  • Martin and Bates predict that more discoveries will be made in Guatemala and Belize (34).

For a source with three or more authors, only the last name of the first author is listed, followed by 'et al.' This abbreviation means 'and others.'

  • Humans created traps to catch mammoths 15,000 years ago (Smith et al. 51).
  • Smith et al. found traps that were used to catch mammoths 15,000 years ago (51).

When a website or webpage has no author, the in-text citation includes the first item that appears in the Works Cited entry for the source, which will probably be the name of the webpage. A page number is not included ("Recent Discoveries").

APA Format Citations

APA is the acronym for the American Psychological Association. APA citations are used in psychology, nursing, education, and social sciences. Like MLA citations, APA citations include the author's last name. Unlike MLA citations, APA citations include the year of publication.

  • The bird-like dinosaur had large eyes and excellent hearing, so scientists concluded that it could hunt at night (Robbins, 2021).

Like MLA citations, when the author's name is mentioned in the sentence, the name is not repeated in the in-text citation:

  • As Robbins (2021) reported, the bird-like dinosaur had large eyes and excellent hearing so it could hunt at night.

When language from the source is quoted, a comma is inserted after the year, and the page number is inserted after the abbreviation 'p.' If multiple page numbers are cited, the abbreviation 'pp.' is used. Note that these abbreviations are not used in MLA style.

  • The dinosaur had long legs and a small head and looked like "an unusual chicken" (Robbins, 2021, p. 5).

For a source with two authors, both their last names are listed, and the ampersand symbol is placed before the last one:

  • The bones around the eye indicated that the dinosaur could see in the dark (Choiniere & Benson, 2021).

For a source with three or more authors, only the last name of the first author is listed, followed by the abbreviation 'et al.'

  • Their discovery was contested by another research team working in Australia (Lopez et al., 2021).

MLA Citations

MLA stands for the Modern Language Association. MLA citations use parenthetical citations with the author and page number. These short citations tell the reader which source in your bibliography to look up and where to look in the source. Here's an example:

  • One historian praises Godolphin as the ''able Lord Treasurer'' (Churchill 41).

If you mention the author in the sentence, you can just give the page number:

  • Churchill praises Godolphin as the ''able Lord Treasurer'' (41).

If your readers want to look up that quote, they can just go to your bibliography, look up the Churchill book, and find the quote for themselves.

If you have a source that doesn't have a single author, like a website, you can replace the author's name with any identifying phrase, like the title of the website. If you have a source without page numbers, like a painting, you can simply leave them out.

But, what if you have two books by Winston Churchill? This quote is from his book History of the English-Speaking Peoples, but maybe you are writing a whole paper on Winston Churchill, so you're also citing his book Marlborough: His Life and Times. No problem, just use a shortened version of each source title to tell the reader which book you mean:

  • Winston Churchill praises Godolphin as the ''able Lord Treasurer'' (English-Speaking Peoples 41).

  • He also says that None had his knowledge, and few his easy, suave, adaptable competence, or his calm, even temper (Marlborough 535).

The MLA publishes rules for citing just about any kind of source you can possibly imagine, including all the weird ones like patents, TV shows, people's blog posts, personal conversations, and advertisements. It's tedious to sift through all that and try to memorize it before you even need it. So, just remember that you can find all that information at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, which explains all the weird source types and how to format them.

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Video Transcript

Citations

When you are writing, sometimes you want to use a fact that you didn't find out for yourself. For example, you might want to use the fact that the planet Earth is 238,855 miles from the moon, but you're not super-thrilled about the idea of building your own spaceship and flying up to check for yourself. That's where citations come in.

In academic writing, you can look up someone else's measurement of the distance between the earth and the moon, and then use it in your own work with a citation. A citation tells the reader where you got information or an idea from. It's a way to credit other people for putting in the hard work of actually flying to the moon to check so you don't have to. Here are some example sentences that could be in your paper:

  • According to NASA, the earth is 238,855 miles from the moon (NASA Space Place).

  • Experts in astronomy agree that the moon and the earth are ''really far apart'' (NASA Space Place).

You have to cite every fact in your paper that you found out from someone else, unless the fact is common knowledge. For example, you don't have to cite the fact that Washington, D.C., is the capital of the USA: everyone knows that. But, you do have to cite the fact that Congress first met in Washington, D.C., on November 17, 1800, because most people don't know that. When in doubt - cite. You will never get in trouble for citing something unnecessarily, but you can get in trouble for not citing when you should have.

Also, use citations any time you quote someone else's words or use someone else's ideas. Here are some more examples:

  • Winston Churchill has a very high opinion of the Duke of Marlborough, referring to his ''genius…in the field and his sagacity in counsel'' (Churchill 38).

  • Winston Churchill strongly approved of Queen Anne's decision to place the Duke of Marlborough in supreme command of her armies (38).

Academic books can have thousands of citations, so everyone wants to keep them short. So, we've come up with several ways to squeeze all the information you need into short, easy-to-read citations. In this lesson, you'll learn two major ways to cite sources: APA style and MLA style. It does feel really nitpicky at first, and it's kind of annoying to pay attention to, but it's important to give other people credit for their ideas.

In both MLA and APA styles, you'll have a bibliography at the end of your paper. The bibliography lists every single source you took facts or ideas from, with enough information that the reader can find the exact same source. Then, in your in-text citations, refer readers to particular works in the bibliography and tell them where to look within each work. For APA, you'd label this page 'References' but for MLA, you'd label this page 'Works Cited'.

MLA Citations

MLA stands for the Modern Language Association. MLA citations use parenthetical citations with the author and page number. These short citations tell the reader which source in your bibliography to look up and where to look in the source. Here's an example:

  • One historian praises Godolphin as the ''able Lord Treasurer'' (Churchill 41).

If you mention the author in the sentence, you can just give the page number:

  • Churchill praises Godolphin as the ''able Lord Treasurer'' (41).

If your readers want to look up that quote, they can just go to your bibliography, look up the Churchill book, and find the quote for themselves.

If you have a source that doesn't have a single author, like a website, you can replace the author's name with any identifying phrase, like the title of the website. If you have a source without page numbers, like a painting, you can simply leave them out.

But, what if you have two books by Winston Churchill? This quote is from his book History of the English-Speaking Peoples, but maybe you are writing a whole paper on Winston Churchill, so you're also citing his book Marlborough: His Life and Times. No problem, just use a shortened version of each source title to tell the reader which book you mean:

  • Winston Churchill praises Godolphin as the ''able Lord Treasurer'' (English-Speaking Peoples 41).

  • He also says that None had his knowledge, and few his easy, suave, adaptable competence, or his calm, even temper (Marlborough 535).

The MLA publishes rules for citing just about any kind of source you can possibly imagine, including all the weird ones like patents, TV shows, people's blog posts, personal conversations, and advertisements. It's tedious to sift through all that and try to memorize it before you even need it. So, just remember that you can find all that information at the Purdue University Online Writing Lab, which explains all the weird source types and how to format them.

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Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you write a citation?

  1. An in-text citation in MLA style is created by placing the author's last name and the page number in parentheses in the sentence (Lopez 10).
  2. An in-text citation in APA style is created by placing the author's last name and year of publication, separated by a comma in parentheses in the sentence (Lopez, 2011).
  3. An in-text citation in Chicago author-date style is created by placing the author's last name and year of publication with parentheses in the sentence without a comma (Lopez 2011).

How to create an in-text citation for a website?

When a website or webpage has an author, the in-text citation is the same as an in-text citation for a book or article, like in APA style, an in-text citation would be (Smith, 2020).

But, when citing a website or webpage with no author, the organization's name is used in the in-text citation in place of the author's last name (Google, 2016). For instance, in Chicago author-date style, the in-text citation would not include the comma (Google 2016).

How to cite in MLA format?

In-text citations in MLA format are author-page citations. The author's last name and the page number are placed in parentheses in the sentence (Lopez 10).

What is the difference between in-text citation and references?

In-text citations are much shorter than the full references that are included in a Works Cited page or reference list. These citations typically include the author's last name and either the page number or year of publication. Sometimes, all three pieces of information are included. References, however, include additional information such as the title and publisher.

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