In-Text Citation and Argument

I know this doesn’t sound very exciting, but I am reading some stellar papers from my Gender Issues in Language and Literature class and love the ideas, yet with some papers, mourn that the execution of those ideas are hampered by incorrect or overly-minimal in-text citation. So this is for them and all the other students writing their last and best papers for the semester. Before you finish your seminar papers, be sure your in-text citations are correct and even better, used to show the source’s authority. Using citations to show authority or even the source viewpoint is a rhetorical move, one that will strengthen your argument and solidify the organization of the paper.

Now, I know that different professors expect differing level of style accuracy when writing papers and that is normal. However, a normal part of my course load is teaching writing itself and teaching teachers how to teach writing. Very meta. Gender Issues is not that kind of course–it’s more of a literature/ rhetoric/ critical hybrid. However, through teaching writing and writing theory so much I’ve learned to value how writers shape their arguments through style usage. There are good reasons for each style used in English Studies, mainly MLA, APA, or CMS. All of them though, have the potential for in-text citation used in order to strengthen the paper’s argument. If writers don’t begin by doing it correctly then, that possibility is stripped away.

First, something that should go without saying: When writing about a novel, that novel should be in the Works Cited. Not including it undercuts you paper and also takes away information the reader needs. The reader needs to know what edition and printing you are using. There are differences.

Now, let’s move to the main topic and take a closer look at in-text citation for web sources. There are two main kinds to think of: true web pages and print sources shared via the web, usually PDFs. Here is the most common in-text citation error and why doing it right is important. When using a web source, many, many students will place the author last name by itself in parenthesis at the end of a quote or paraphrase. That is all they give–no title, no journal name, no page number, which in this case does not exist. It’s a web page! It’s the land of the endless scroll!

In this case, no parenthesis is needed. None. Seriously. I have had undergraduate and yes, graduate students tell me that this statement is incorrect according to the OWL at Purdue. The section “Citing non-print or sources from the Internet” states otherwise, but when asked for where the OWL says to give author name only in parenthesis for web sources, it can’t be found or they do find this section, and we find when reading it together that it did not say that at all. Sincerely, it doesn’t. The section specifies “Include in the text,” which is not the same as in the parenthesis. If they meant parenthesis, it would have been easy to write parenthesis. Where then, do students get this citation strategy? Apparently some high school writing teachers may ask for author name only in-parentheses, either in error or as a personal variation in style. I can’t deny there may be college faculty that do it too. All the same, please don’t do this. It looks amateurish and hurts your paper with readers who know style as well as the more important reason, that it cuts you off from variations that build your argument. 

One more thing–if you know your paper will end up being a PDF and read on a computer, which is a hugely possible “if,” put the links in. That makes the original source available in a very usable way. Make it a contextual link though, not the URL. For an example for what that means, see the OWL at Purdue reference above. It gives the site name, not the URL and it goes right to the specific page referred to, not the home page for the site.

On the other hand, if your source was accessed through the web rather than originally created for the web, there is a chance it is a print source that is merely accessed through the web. If it is a print source, then it remains a print source and the original rules for print sources apply even though you retrieved it through the web. The simplest usage in MLA in-text citation is to give the author last name and page number in the parenthesis. However, correct is not the same as best. There are variations for this, and the default for first-mention would be to give the source information in the sentence and have the page number -only in the parenthesis. That gives writers more of a chance to let readers know why they should listen to this source and as a result, their argument. Authority is important and a simple last name does not tell enough.

An interesting variation of this is Kindle editions, or any other eBook reader that uses location number for their texts. Some writers use location numbers in the parenthetical citation spot and I think that is helpful. It is not the standard at this time, but it is not forbidden either and is mentioned as an option. At the very least, do not discount using Kindle editions because they don’t have page numbers. You can and should cite from them. With the vast number of free public domain books available through e-readers, it would be a sin to ignore this resource. As usual though, don’t put the author name alone in parenthesis. It is not correct. Instead, tell about the source briefly in the sentence.

Here’s an example for how a print source in-text citation could be done. Let’s consider the hypothetical author Marley Kobrofnick, who wrote a literary dictionary listing defining the term panopticon in World Literary Dictionary. I made that up. When using a reference book like this, the authority is usually located where it is published rather than the author. So, in that case you would do something like this: ” according to Marley Kobrofnick in the World Literary Dictionary, the panopticon is…” (page number here). However, what if neither is that authoritative? What if the term is defined so much better by the originator of it, in this case Michel Foucault? The original text is easy to find and although it would mean reading it, Foucault’s own writing on this would actually be the way to go. The best usage then would not be a dictionary, but the original text: “In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault introduces the panopticon as a metaphor for….” (page number here). Applied to traditional gender roles, this idea….”

Once the source has been mentioned for the first time, writers can abbreviate the in-text reference. Here is how to integrate the citation after the first mention:  “Although romance novels have long been popular, popularity does not always win critical acclaim. As Palance points out, between the 18th and 19th century….” (page number here). This sort of thing is not just citation. The choices for how you cite can greatly strengthen your argument by indicating authority and showing how multiple sources agree with your point.

Being right is a start when it comes to style. Once you get it right though, you open up more possibilities in what you can do while building an argument, which is, after all, the point of a seminar paper–to showcase your ideas with authoritative source support.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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