Category Archives: citation style

Which citation style should you teach?

My sister, who homeschools her children, asked me the following question on FB recently:

Official school teacher question… I think I have told you in the past that the girls have to cite EVERYTHING they do in every subject, bibliographies are required for every paper, no matter the subject. The question I have for you is, they are given the option to use MLA or APA, and now I am learning of the Chicago style. Teacher’s don’t name a preference, so which style, in your opinion, should they use primarily? I am looking for them to memorize whatever style is going to be most used in teh future, not for the one that is necessarily easiest. I do know that one or the other is used primarily for scientific writing, as opposed to literary or other writing. Right now that is about half and half. Just need an expert opinion!

I ended up answering her rather lengthily, so I thought I’d repost it here:

lol, you came to the right place! I wrote a whole chapter in my textbook [Writer/Designer, just finished!] that explains how to figure out which style to use. I’ll send that to you. But, for reference, here’s four major styles, although there are 100s of style guides for specific disciplinary fields out there:

MLA: Created by the Modern Language Association. Only used for literary and some (foreign) language scholarship. Has serious limitations when it comes to citing digital work (go figure!). Privileges “The Text” (a corpus, or body of work) as a static, never-changing entity by using the present tense when introducing quotes from a text, foregrounding the author of a work in the reference, and backgrounding the date of publication. (e.g., it’s perfectly OK to cite a piece of scholarship from 1950 as “current” in MLA style, with “Frederickson says…”). Not very useful/low on the scale of transferability to other styles.

AP: Created by the Associated Press, specifically for newspapers and sometimes magazines (but not scholarly/research journals). Useful for practical and daily writing when you need to cite a source (in an interview style, let’s say) but don’t need or want the citation itself to jumble the text. Foregrounds the limited and costly space of print media in its design (e.g., one space after periods, which everyone but MLA also does, etc.). Useful for non-research-intensive writing to think about how source information can be unobtrusively included.

APA: Created by the American Psychological Association. Used for much scholarship in sciences, social sciences, and some humanities (such as my field). Privileges the scientific, time-sensitive nature of research by making the date of publication prominent in references and using past-tense in quote-introduction verbs, such as: “Ball (2004) said…” Used *much* more than MLA (I swear I don’t know why *anyone* teaches MLA anymore). [Note: Kairos uses a modified form of APA that includes first names of authors — APA doesn’t usually (e.g., “C.E. Ball”) — so as to foreground the gender of researchers. This is important in science and technical academic writing to break down the gender barriers that still exist in these fields–iow, if we can more easily see the first names, we might better notice how women’s research is valued. So, APA doesn’t normally like to notice such things, as in “Science is Objective” (ha!), but there are ways to modify a style to suit your particular needs. (This is what my chapter is about.)

Chicago (Chicago Manual of Style, or CMoS): Created by the University of Chicago Press for its research and literary publications. This is probably the most-used style. There are two forms of CMoS, one that uses footnotes/endnotes (similar to Turabian, if you ever had to use that to write a history paper, with all those ibids and whatnot that I can never remember) and one that is more like APA, with in-text parenthetical citations. I prefer the latter because it’s more familiar to me. If the kids learn Chicago style, they’ll be able to adapt to most anything else. Plus, the Chicago manual (the book itself) is pretty hefty and complete, at around 1800 pages. If you get one of those, it’ll also include chapters on how to format the headers, subheaders, write abstracts, etc. for research papers.

–> Keep in mind that these styles all assume that you’re doing research-based writing for print media. The key to teaching citation styles is to be flexible and teach the kids how to find each of the bits of info they need to fit it into any of the styles. I don’t recommend memorizing any of them. It’s impossible, frankly, as the style guides are TOO LARGE and change every few years. Plus, professional editors don’t memorize this stuff — they learn enough to familiarize themselves and learn when to look something up in the book. That’s my real recommendation.

As a follow-up to that recommendation, I would also recommend reading the following article (cited in APA style since I pulled it from a Kairos reference list 😉

Leverenz, Carrie. (1998). Citing cybersources: A challenge to disciplinary values. Computers and Composition, 15, 185-200.