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.

ninecoreelementsI 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 bit.ly or tinyurl.com, 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 thumbnailre-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!

18 thoughts on “5 Things You NEED to Know About the New MLA Works Cited Format

  1. Ivy Byron says:

    I appreciate this so much!! THANK YOU!! I’ll be sharing with my dept. in August!!

  2. Fantastic, Ivy! Spread the word far and wide, my friend. 🙂

  3. meganmcrae727 says:

    Oh Laura, what a way to kick off my summer!!! I’ll be downloading this and it’ll be done within the first week of school this fall. You are the best!

  4. Ha, Meg! It’s not exactly fun-in-the-summer-sun content, but it seemed very necessary. Glad you’ll get good use out of this in the fall. Vacation on! 🙂

  5. Julie Keith says:

    Woohoo! Thanks so much!! We don’t really hit the MLA style until 2nd semester, but this has even simplified my first semester planning!

    I owe you more cheesecake and wine than is even legally allowed!

  6. Wine AND cheesecake, Julie? Oh, yes, please! Just maybe not at the same time. 🙂

    Leave it to English teachers to get giddy about MLA rules. Do I know my people or do I know my people?

  7. meganmcrae727 says:

    Agreed, but I’m sure you’ve seen about a million examples of what kiddos claim is MLA format haha. It drives me bonkers. I’m just excited that it is somewhat simplified. I’ll share it with our librarian as well. She is wonderful and teaches them how to use this starting in 4th grade. So when they get to me I am a stickler on format because they’ve been exposed to it for 3 years. It’s the little things that make me happy! 😉

  8. Oh yeah, Meg, my juniors sometimes feign that they’ve never seen MLA before and I’m like, really…

  9. Karen Carnley says:

    Dear Laura,

    It seems presumptuous of me to call you by your first name… However, I feel I know you 🙂

    In my circle of teaching besties, we call you Randazzo the Rockstar. Thanks again for sharing your brain with the world! You do have a gift!


    Karen Carnley

  10. Presumptuous, Karen? Not at all! We’re virtual colleagues, after all – just think of me as your friend down the cyber-hallway. And I love imagining a world where teachers are thought of as rockstars. Yes, please! 🙂

  11. Oh, stop it some more, Mommyrhetoric! xoxo
    (My husband says you guys are going to give me a big head.)

  12. Melissa Meverden says:

    Yikes, I didn’t even know MLA had released a new edition! (We got out of school the first week of June, so I’ve been in vacation mode for a few weeks… can that be my excuse? Haha!)

    I’m very glad for this post and to know that your resources are waiting, once I get back into school mode. Thanks for all your fabulous resources.

  13. Happy to help, Melissa. And, don’t feel bad, I didn’t find out about the update until late May and I couldn’t even deal with it until school ended. There’s only so much my gray matter can handle at this time of year, right? 🙂

  14. Shouldn’t your example citation (torn from the page) have a comma instead of a period after 2013 to be consistent with your instructions?

    I might misunderstand. Thanks for a great overview and effective visuals!

  15. Hi Margaret,
    Great questions! And I can understand your confusion. So the MLA folks consider Netflix (and other portals, such as Hulu, YouTube, etc.) to be separate “containers,” which means you end the first “container” info. involving the Discovery Channel with the 2013 date (end with that period) and then launch the second container info. involving Netflix as the second separate line. Hope this makes sense. Believe me, there’s a lot to wrangle with the new system, but overall I think it’s a vast improvement.

    Have a great school year!
    🙂 Laura

  16. Andrea Wetters says:

    Quick question–we recently were reviewing the new MLA changes and we often have used OWL Purdue for info regarding MLA. On that site, it references still using date accessed. Wondering if you know the final ruling on that. I read your article, and our dept was on board with what you wrote, but then a student showed me what OWL Purdue had to say. Any thoughts?

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