How To Do In-Text Citations in MLA Format: A Quick Guide for Students

Last updated April 17, 2024

An in-text citation is a reference to information originating from another source. In-text citations must be used when you summarize, quote, paraphrase or refer to another source within a written document, such as academic literature. 

In-text citations are essential in academic writing. Without them, how would readers verify the information is reliable and accurate? Trustworthy authors include their sources for verifiable information rather than opinions so readers know where the evidence for claims can be explored further.

The Modern Language Association manages MLA style standards with the purpose to “strengthen the study and teaching of language and literature” and standardize how information sources are credited in scholarly writing. Not only does the MLA recommend proper citation format, but it also suggests proper general formatting, including document spacing, margins and font size.

As you begin authoring scholarly works, you’ll find the need to credit sources. Use this quick guide to learn how to do in-text citations in MLA format.

What is MLA format?

MLA citation style is a system for crediting sources in scholarly writing and has been widely used in classrooms, journals and the press since 1931. What began with a three-page style sheet for the MLA’s scholarly journal became a uniform writing style preferred by academics and the editorial media everywhere.

Since its inception, the in-text citation style has changed from a recommended combination of footnotes and in-text citations in MLA format. The 1951 style guide suggested: “If the reference is brief, insert it, within parentheses, in the text itself . . . ; if it is lengthy, put it in a [foot]note.” As technology and society changed, so did the MLA style. In 1995, the document added recommendations for citing CD-ROMs and online databases. In 2016, the MLA published one of the most modern versions of the MLA Handbook, wherein in-text citations in MLA style should now be written according to a template of core elements.

The modern-day components of an in-text citation in MLA format, as of the ninth edition of the MLA Handbook, include:

  1. Author’s name
  2. Page numbers (if applicable)

These short in-text citations serve as references to a Works Cited list, which should follow a written piece of work and list all sources used in detail.

Authors who correctly use in-text citations in MLA style will prove their credibility, integrity and responsibility to share accurate and reliable information and simultaneously protect themselves from stealing sources and ideas from other writers, also known as plagiarism. Plagiarism is a severe offense, and many institutions have strict rules against the practice.

How to do in-text citations in MLA

Now that you understand the importance of citations let’s review how to use in-text citations in MLA style. When referring to another author’s work in your own written text, you must use parenthetical citations, including the source in parentheses within the sentence that refers to the work. 

If a source does not have page numbers, use another numbering system, such as chapters, sections, scenes or articles that are explicitly numbered. If there are no numbered divisions within the work, simply cite the author’s name.

The basic format for in-text citations in MLA writings is as follows:

  • The pail of water was at the top of the hill, which Jack and Jill decided to climb (Mother Goose 1).

If including a direct quote from a source, enclose the entire quote within quotation marks to avoid confusing the reader. The in-text citation should fall outside the quotation marks at the end of the sentence before the sentence’s period. Paraphrased information does not need quotation marks but does need proper in-text citation.

It should be noted that any information included in your in-text citations must refer to the source information on the Works Cited page listed at the end of your document.

How to do a Works Cited page in MLA

If you’re wondering how to list the references on the Works Cited page, the format varies depending on the type, such as a book or a website.

How to cite a book in MLA

  • Author last name, first name. Title. Publisher, year.

How to cite an article in MLA

  • Author last name, first name. “Article title.” Publication, volume/issue, publication month. Year, page numbers. Database, reference URL.

How to cite a website in MLA

  • Author last name, first name. “Title.” Publication, publication month. Year, web page URL.

Common challenges and solutions

While constructing your paper, you may encounter a few citation challenges, such as a source with multiple authors or no known author. Though this can be confusing, this is how to use in-text citations in MLA style for challenging situations.

How to cite multiple authors in MLA

To write an in-text citation in MLA format for a source with multiple authors, simply list each author’s last name before the page number. Sources with more than two authors should cite the first author, followed by “et al.” For example:

  • 2 authors: (Hall and Oates 1)
  • 3+ authors: (Hall et al. 1)

How to cite sources with no author in MLA

Sources with no author must match the first listed element within its Works Cited entry. For example:

  • In-text citation: (Baa, Baa, Black Sheep 0:15)
  • Works Cited entry: “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.” Spotify.

How to cite indirect or secondary sources in MLA

A secondary source is a publication that provides second-hand information from other researchers. You may use secondary sources in your research, though it’s best practice to search for the primary source that supplied the first-hand information, so cite it directly.

If you don’t have access to the original source, include the original author and the author of the secondary source, with the abbreviation “qtd. in” indicating where you accessed the secondary quote. “Qtd. in” stands for “quoted in.” For example:

  • (qtd. in Baa, Baa, Black Sheep 0:15)

Using et al. in MLA citations

As described above, et al. is used instead of listing all names of three or more authors, editors or contributors within your citations. It can also cite collections of essays, stories or poems with three or more contributors. When using et al., you should always use the last name of the first writer listed on the source. For example:

  • (Earth et al. “September” 0:15)
  • Contributors: Earth, Wind and Fire

Tips for effective in-text citations

The most crucial part of in-text citations in MLA style is to keep a consistent and accurate format within the entire body of work. Always use the same punctuation within the in-text citations and the same formatting for sources of the same type. Ensure that double-checking citations is part of your overall proofreading process. All citations, like the written work, should be precise and error-free.

Various tools exist to help you collect and manage your sources and citations. Popular tools include Zotero, EndNote and RefWorks. These tools can create citations for you and keep track of your research documents so you can reference them again if needed. It’s wise to track your sources as they’re included in your writing rather than compiling and citing them when finished.

More resources for writing in MLA format

For the most up-to-date in-text citation information, refer to the MLA Handbook, which can be found online, in bookstores and libraries. The most recent edition of the MLA Handbook is the 9th edition, published in spring 2021.

The MLA also operates the MLA Handbook Plus, a subscription-based digital platform that offers all of the content included in the print edition, plus annual updates and valuable resources, and can be accessed anywhere, whether you’re traveling, at home or in the classroom.

The MLA Style Center offers free online sources on the official MLA style, including templates, questions and answers and advice.

Furman University offers trained consultants for students on campus to provide one-on-one or small-group assistance for writing projects at the Writing & Media Lab (WML). You can make an appointment with a WML Consultant or stop by the James B. Duke Library in the Center for Academic Success (room 002) for on-demand help (subject to scheduling).

The Writing & Media Lab can help with many tasks related to student writing and multimedia projects, including:

  • Brainstorming a paper or project
  • Outlining your ideas
  • Reading through your writing
  • Creating a presentation or poster
  • Helping you practice your presentation
  • Planning a video or podcast
  • Revising, proofreading, or editing

Mastering the art of in-text citations in MLA format will ensure that you, as an academic author, will portray yourself as a serious, responsible and factual writer who uses accurate and reliable sources.

The perspectives and thoughts shared in the Furman Blog belong solely to the author and may not align with the official stance or policies of Furman University. All referenced sources were accurate as of the date of publication.