Pointing to Each Other: Citation Basics

In the last post in this series (Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It?), I explained why we cite our sources as academics. In this post, I’m focusing on how we cite sources, but in a broad sense: what elements are common to all citation styles?

I’m sure that someone, somewhere, has counted the number of different citation styles that exist–let’s just say that there are a LOT. Fortunately, you don’t need to know them all; what you need to know is (1) what style your teacher wants and (2) what style is used in your academic discipline. Biologists use a different style than the English department.

Many students in my classes are familiar with MLA, the citation style of the Modern Language Association, or APA, the style of the American Psychological Association. There’s also the Chicago Manual of Style (usually just called “Chicago”) or Turabian or ASA . . . Again, you don’t need to know them all. Just know that they are out there, and that you can find reference books for each that tell you how to organize your citation material.

Before you begin a writing project, find out what style you’re expected to use. (Check out Before You Begin and How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for tips on how to find out what’s expected).

The style you’re using may call for in-text citations (called parenthetical references) paired with a references or works cited list at the end. You may use footnotes, which consist of a superscript number paired with a note or citation in the bottom margin, or endnotes, which also use a superscript number but with notes or citations at the end of the chapter or book. And then there are other combinations, but these are the most common strategies that I see.

Before we continue, I want to make sure that we are all on the same page. To that end, I’m going to provide some very informal definitions.

My very informal definitions

Citation:    The written acknowledgement of the source of your information, in a specific configuration according to citation style.

In a sentence: I messed up the citations in my paper; I used web addresses instead of following the style.

Cite, to:     The action of acknowledging the source of your information.

In a sentence: I cited all of my sources in this paper.

Endnote:     Text that appears at the end of a paper that (1) provides additional information not in the paper, or (2) provides the reference, or sometimes (3) both. The endnote is indicated by a superscript number added with the material borrowed from a source.

In a sentence: My teacher wants endnotes instead of a reference list; how do I do this in Word?

Footnotes:     Like endnotes, except that the text appears at the bottom of the page where the borrowed material appears, below a horizontal line.

In a sentence: There are so many footnotes on this page, there’s hardly any room left for the article!

In-Text Citation:     More formally called a parenthetical reference because it is contained in parentheses. The in-text citation is the portion of a reference pair that appears in the body of the paper (in your paragraphs), as near as possible to the material you borrowed from the source.

In a sentence: I have trouble remembering where to put the punctuation for my in-text citations when I have to switch between MLA and APA style.

Parenthetical Reference:    See “in-text citation,” above.

Reference:     The full publication information for the source you borrowed information from, arranged into the proper format for the citation style. Placement of the reference varies by style but is often at the end of the paper.

In a sentence: Can you help me make sure I formatted this reference correctly?

ALSO (part 2), as “references,” “reference list,” or “works cited” (depending on style), which is the heading for the complete list of references that appears at the end of the paper.

In a sentence: I lost points because I forgot to alphabetize my references list. 

Works Cited:     See “reference,” part 2, above.

Simplifying how we think of citation

You may, like many other students, be very frustrated right now. How are you going to remember all this stuff?  How do you figure out what’s expected for what style?

Here’s the secret: before you worry about what style you’re using, all you have to do is collect the information you know you are going to need. We’ll cover how to use the most common styles in a later post.

First, let’s talk about what all of this stuff is actually doing. You may have noticed that despite the differences in terminology, there’s also consistency in how we handle citing sources. There’s always something that appears in the text, with or near the information you borrowed from another source, and then there’s always something at the bottom of the page or end of the paper that gives more detail about how to find the original article, book, or whatever you used. They’re a pair. Each part of the pair has as job to do.

The job of the in text portion is to point you toward the full reference.

The job of the full reference is to give enough information that someone can go find the original themselves.

They’re like road signs, pointing the reader onward. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

To do their job successfully, you need to collect specific information while you research. The format you use to write up the in-text and end-of-text portions may vary by citation style, but there are a lot of similarities. In other words, citation styles are nothing more than patterns you use to format the same information. This bears repeating:

Citation styles are nothing more than patterns used to report source information you collected while researching.


They’re not scary. Just finicky.

As long as you collect the information you need as you are researching, you will be able to successfully format your references at any point in your process. Here’s a tip: don’t forget this step. It doesn’t matter if you write it down, snap a photo with your phone, print the article – whatever – but make it a habit. Trying to find a source you didn’t keep information for is a time-wasting nightmare. I’ve developed the habit of doing this first, before I take any notes.

What information should I collect from my sources?

This varies depending on the source. I will cover academic articles and books, which will cover most of what you will encounter. If you have another type of source (like a movie or webpage), much of the same applies, and if you’re missing something, you’ll have enough information to find it again to get what you need.


  • Name of the author or authors
  • Name of the article
  • Name of the journal the article appears in (sometimes this is abbreviated and you will have to look it up or ask)
  • Year published
  • Volume number
  • Issue number (if there is one)
  • Page numbers the article appears on (from start to finish)
  • If you accessed it online (and you probably did), your style may ask for the DOI or the permanent link for the article. DO NOT just copy/paste the URL in your browser search bar into your citation. That’s the URL for the library/database search and will not work for your instructor.
  • Access date (the date you accessed the article)


  • Name of the author or authors and/or name of the editor or editors
  • Name of the book. Include the subtitle, if there is one
  • Edition number, if there is one
  • Year published (look for the Library of Congress information on one of the first few inside pages)
  • Name of the publishing house (Houghton-Mifflin, Chicago University Press, etc)
  • Place of publication (New York, London, Chicago, Poughkeepsie, NY, etc)

If you have written down, photocopied, downloaded, or taken a photo of the above information, you should have what you need to make pretty much any citation style happy.

See?  Simple.

More to come in the future!  Stay tuned or better yet, hit the follow button on the left!

This post is the second in a series about citation. Check out the next: Citing Sources: When do I have to cite?


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