What does it mean to cite using MLA, APA, or Chicago style?

MLA, APA, and Chicago are three common citation styles. These are ways of giving credit to sources from which we use ideas, words, and images. Citing sources may seem unnecessary, but is actually a useful and ethical part of college writing.

Why do I need to cite sources

The most obvious reason to cite sources is to avoid plagiarism. Noting where ideas came from keeps us from stealing something that was not originally ours. Just as important, however, is that we cite sources to establish our credibility as writers and to become part of the ongoing scholarly conversation among writers and researchers. Citing sources also lets readers know who came up with a particular idea and provide them with the information to find that source for further research.

Each citation system has its own distinctive style for citing sources both within an essay (in-text) and at the end (works cited or reference page). The features of each style are based on the values of the fields that use them. Learning the reasons for these features demonstrates a lot about particular disciplines and the advantages to having different systems. To learn more about which disciplines favor which styles, visit the American University website.

Keep in mind that any details noted below may vary depending on what professors prefer; always use what they require over what online resources provide.

Modern Language Association (MLA)

  • Commonly used in Humanities fields such as English and Philosophy
  • Places emphasis on exact words of other writers; quotes are often important
  • Page numbers used in in-text citations to help readers quickly find quotes and ideas
  • Author names written out completely in Works Cited list
  • No cover page or abstract required

American Psychological Association (APA)

  • Used mainly in Social Sciences such as Psychology, Sociology, Education, and Criminal Justice
  • Formal structure often used, including specific subheadings
  • Cover page and abstract often required
  • General ideas usually more important than exact words; avoid too many quotations, paraphrase (link)  ideas
  • Dates important in in-text citations and Reference list; places importance on most current research­
  • Author’s first names not written out; ideas and research more important than researchers

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

  • Commonly used in History and other Humanities fields
  • There are two types: Author and Date, and Notes and Bibliography
  • Notes and Bibliography uses footnotes and/or endnotes to elaborate on source material
  • Title page may be used in either format but usually not required; subheadings not required

For specific instructions and examples about how to use each style, refer to the links above to each of our citation handouts. You can also find physical copies in the University Writing Center, or make an appointment for further help using citations. There are other citation styles beyond these three, but these are the most common. Always ask your professor which citation style should be used if you are unsure. For resources on teaching about incorporating sources, see “Writing with Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism.”

What can the Writing Center do to help?

We work frequently with writers to help with all of their questions about citing sources and different citation formats. We can help you at the beginning of your research process, to help you make sure you understand what information you will need as well as when you will need to cite information. We can can also help you near the end of your writing process with specific questions about how to cite sources and construct your references page.