Whether you’re a professional writer, a student, or just writing a post for your personal blog, being able to cite and reference correctly is a critical skill.
To help you out, we’ve put together a guide, covering all the major citation styles you can choose from, how they cite in-text, what their bibliography/reference list looks like, and additional resources you can use to get your citations just right.
Why Bother Citing at All?
Before we get too far into the popular citation styles, you might be asking yourself: “Why do we even bother with this at all?”
It’s a fair question. But there are some very good reasons.
First, it helps you avoid plagiarism.
For example, imagine that you’re writing a piece about investing, and you read about Warren Buffet’s passive index approach. You wouldn’t want to claim the idea as your own, so by citing you make it clear that you took the idea from somewhere else.
Second, it helps your readers get a wider picture of what you’re working on.
Take our investment example from above. Let’s say you only mentioned in passing the passive index. Your readers might want more information about it — by following your citations, they can go and get the information quickly and easily.
Finally, citing is a fast and easy way to lend creditability to your own writing. Without citations, your work will just look like your opinion. However, if you can provide references and a clear chain of thought demonstrating why and how you reach your conclusions, then it’s a much more compelling argument.
Going back to our investment example, it means a lot more to say “Warren Buffet, one of the most successful investors in the world, advocates the passive index investment technique (citation),” compared to “Passive index investing is a good investment strategy.”
And that’s why we cite — it avoid plagiarism, to be useful to your readers, and to create powerful arguments.
Now to the business of actually citing your work. There are multiple styles of citations you can choose from that amount the same thing — they show where you got your information from, when it was written, and what medium it was written in.
In short, a citation should provide all the information someone would need to go look up the source themselves.
When you’re choosing a style, there are a few things to bear in mind:
If you’re asked to use a particular style, use that one.
Stay consistent. Pick a style and try and use it for everything.
Find out if your field has a preferred style. If so, use that (eg, Psychology uses APA)
Chicago Manual of Style
The Chicago Manual of Style is generally used in the humanities and social sciences, although leans more towards the humanities with social sciences often favoring APA. It’s a little unique in that it encompasses two citation systems you can choose from.
The first is the notes and bibliography (N-B) system, based on superscript footnotes and endnotes with the corresponding number appearing at the end of the page/section with the citation.
The second system in called the author-date system, where the author and date are put in-text instead of a footnote or endnote. Using that information, readers can go and find the source you’re referencing in your bibliography.
The citation style for the Notes and Bibliography system is roughly as follows:
1. Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Back Bay Books, 2011), 6-10.
And for every citation after that…
2. Gladwell, Outliers, [page number].
There are variations of this basic format depending on how many authors you have and what sort of medium it is but those are the bones of the notes part of the N-B system.
If you’re opting for the author-date system, you don’t use endnotes or footnotes. You just put where you would normally put a superscript number the author and year in parentheses:
This stays consistent no matter how many times you cite a source.
A CMS bibliography is the same for the N-B style and the author-date style. It’s essentially a reproduction of the footnote or endnote written in a slightly different format:
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Back Bay Books, 2011.
Again, the exact information will differ depending on exactly what you’re citing.
Turbian is a slight variation of the Chicago Style and was designed to be more student friendly. Where the CMS contains plenty of information on formatting, editing, and language preferences, most of that is cut out from the Turabian style to make it more accessible.
However, with the release of the 16th edition of the Chicago Style, the two have basically merged to become the same thing.
Regardless, if you’re asked to used Turabian, here are some resources you might want to check out:
Turabian General Formatting (good for formatting basics)
eTurbian citation generator
MLA, or the Modern Language Association, is a style used in humanities and literature fields, but almost nowhere else. The benefit of MLA is that instead of being set of hard and fast rules for how to cite a source (like APA) it’s more of a loose set of heuristics that you can apply anywhere.
MLA uses author, title, container, other contributors, version, number, publisher, publication date, and location to generate citations.
These are all fairly self-explanatory, with the exception of container. A container is a larger piece of work that your particular reference sits in. For example, if you wanted to cite a TV episode, that would be the work in the larger container of the series.
MLA uses a pathetical citations style similar to the author-date style of the Chicago. The only real rule is that whatever you put in your brackets MUST be the first word of the reference in the bibliography. So if you were citing a TV show:
The Office skewers the American workplace with the introduction of Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott (“Pilot”).
Reference List Style
When it comes to creating a reference list, a TV entry would look like this (if you watched it on Netflix):
“Pilot” The Office, season 1, episode 1, NBC, 22 February 2017. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/70105212?trackId=14170289
Notice how the in-text (“Pilot”) and the first word of the reference are the same.
American Psychological Association (APA)
APA style is really the polar opposite of MLA. It’s a set of extremely rigorous rules for formatting and citing works.
The benefit is that once you learn it, you can both cite quickly and easily. However, if you need to cite a slightly obscure source like a TV show, it can be agonizing to ensure that you’re doing it right.
It’s mostly used in social sciences, particularly Psychology, where most references are going to be standard format journal articles, data sets, or books.
APA, again like Chicago style, offers plenty of guidelines on formatting and data presentation, laying out exactly how to present a table, H1-H4 headings, and how to make bullet pointed lists.
APA uses parenthetical citations like the author-date style of Chicago. For example:
There is some evidence that the advent and prevalence of Head-up Display (HUD), Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), hands-free cell phones, and GPS navigation has had a detrimental effect on driver performance (Parasuraman, Molloy, & Singh, 1993).
When it comes to references, APA continues their exacting nature. For the above reference (a journal article) the reference would look like:
Parasuraman, R., Molloy, R., & Singh, I. L. (1993). Performance Consequences of Automation-Induced “Complacency.” The International journal of Aviation Psychology, 3(1) 1-23.
Because of its precision, APA lends itself to generators and guides, so if that’s your preferred citation technique, APA might be the style for you.
Harvard Referencing System
The Harvard referencing system is another in-text citation system, with each in text reference giving readers the information they need to find the source in the back. Harvard offers many of the benefits of APA and is fairly similar, if perhaps a little less stringent.
If you were referencing something with an author, it’s a simple author-date: (Gladwell, 2011). And if you’re referencing something with no author, then you move to the next piece of information, like title.
The Harvard reference list is in alphabetical order by author’s last name, so it’s easy to find the full reference from the name and date. Like other styles, if you don’t have the author, whatever you put in the text needs to be the first word in the reference.
For example, if you were referencing a book:
Gladwell, M. (2011). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Back Bay Books.
Referencing is an important part of writing and publishing, and as you become more familiar with a style or technique, it will get easier. Before you know it, you won’t have to look up if you put a comma or a period after a title — you’ll just know. Plus, it’s a requirement for some writing, particular academic.
But even if it’s not, being able to find and cite your sources is a great skill to develop to bolster your arguments while making your work more useful for the reader.
All in all, doesn’t matter so much what style you choose — just make sure you cite!
Further Reading and Resources
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