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5 Things You NEED to Know About the New MLA Works Cited Format

In April, the Modern Language Association folks revamped their suggested citation formatting to be a better fit in our digital age. The release of the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook gives us quite a few changes to help students manage the mound of electronic resources now available and, while these changes are super-helpful, they made my old lesson materials completely obsolete. So what did I do on my first week of summer vacation? I took to the pool with a copy of the new MLA handbook. True, the excitement never ends around here.

I was delighted to discover the 8th edition actually represents an empowering shift in philosophy. Instead of giving us fresh layers of persnickety rules, the editors have stepped back, listing nine “core elements” to universally apply to any source material we want to cite. It’s up to the writer to determine which of the nine elements to use with a specific sourced piece of information and to present those elements to the reader in the recommended order on the works cited page. Quite a change.

More good news – the first page submission format and the handling of in-text citations haven’t really changed. The works cited page requirements, though, have undergone a significant overhaul.

Here are the top five changes that’ll impact our kids and the way we teach the MLA Works Cited page:

1. There can be more than one right way to cite a source. That’s a thunderbolt for me because I tend to be pretty rigid about format. As it turns out, different databases, for example, might include different publishing details on the same article. Or a poem can be found within an anthology on a library shelf, on the author’s personal website, or buried in the depths of Reddit. As long as a student’s citation is built with correctly placed “core elements” (more on that in a second) and is traceable by the reader, the citation is considered to be correctly built.

2. There are now nine “core elements” (see blue graphic above) that a student needs to try and include in every citation, though all nine pieces of information won’t always be available for every source. Some citations will have only four elements, while others might hit seven. It just depends. That’s where the idea of sources and “containers” comes into play.

Think of Russian nesting dolls. Let’s say a student wants to reference an episode of a TV program from the Discovery Channel that he watched on Netflix. Well, we’ve got a source (the episode) inside a container (the TV program) inside a container (Netflix) – fun, right?  Here’s how it would look on a works cited page:

The student takes care of the first nine core elements as best as he can and then circles back around to include the second container info, in this case the Netflix container and precise URL location.

3. Punctuation is now MUCH simpler. With the 7th edition, I was forever looking up where I needed a period, a comma, or a colon. In the 8th edition, things are leaner and cleaner. Of the nine elements, only #1 (author), #2 (title of source), and #9 (location, or the last element in a citation) end with a period. Everything else is stitched together with commas. Easy.

4. URLs are back, baby. We used to include them. Then we were told to stop. And now we’re going to include them again. Even if a URL is long and clunky, the MLA folks still want us to include it and shorteners, such as or, are a no-no. The idea is that lots of us are now reading papers online and having easy-to-access links help a curious reader retrace a writer’s research. Also, we’re not supposed to include the “http://” or “https://” when listing the address in the citation because that’s sort of obvious. Duh.

5. There are LOTS of little changes that all seem to support the aim of making the works cited page more understandable to someone who doesn’t live in the academic ivory tower. For example, you’ll no longer see something like “37.5” in a citation. Instead, it’ll be written as “vol. 37, no. 5.” And we won’t have a number like “25-31,” but instead we’ll write “pp. 25-31” to help the uncertain reader realize that we’re referring to multiple page numbers. Media types, like “Print” or “Web,” are no longer listed and we’re no longer required to list the date online data was accessed. Unless you had a time-travel machine, that access date wasn’t particularly useful anyway.

Overall, I like the changes because they add flexibility, giving us a set of tools to use in lots of different situations. Technology-based research will continue to evolve and it seems like the MLA’s nine core elements will help us keep track of everything, no matter what information portal becomes the next big thing. I mean, soon, kids’ll need to know how to cite Snapchats from the White House. Seriously.

If you previously purchased my 7th edition MLA lesson materials, be sure to log into your TeachersPayTeachers account and re-download the updated 8th edition materials for free. I tossed the old stuff and built a new 53-slide overview lecture from scratch (it features a few fresh pop culture citation examples as I tried to make a dry subject a bit more palatable to my teens) and I also included a guided notesheet, student reference handouts, and an answer key to make things clear for everyone – us and them.

Teach on, everyone!

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