The Rules of Citations in Geography Essays: M.L.A. Style

Learn the accepted M.L.A. way for acknowledging sources in written essays and reports: Special reference to geography-type essays.

This guide reflects the geographic way of doing things. It includes information on plagiarism, the proper format for acknowledging secondary sources used in the writing of papers, and questions for review. The guide focuses on print material but as the University of Chicago’s Turabian Citation Guide points out, “online sources that are analogous to print sources (such as articles published in online journals, magazines, or newspapers) should be cited similarly to their print counterparts but with the addition of a URL and an access date.”


If a writer borrows another writer’s words or ideas without properly acknowledging the source, the writer is guilty of plagiarism. Plagiarism is, then, the intentional (or unintentional) copying of words or ideas from another source without acknowledging the source.

To be more specific, the writer of a formal research paper must document the source of any borrowed (Hacker 169) information which the writer uses in the paper. Borrowed information is considered to be any quotation, summary or paraphrase from a source used in the writing of a paper, as well as any reference to facts or ideas that are new to the writer, or that are not common knowledge.

The way to document this information is by means of a system of parenthetical references (169) within the paper known as text citations. (169) These citations refer the reader of the paper to a list of ‘”works cited” (169) which will appear at the end of the paper.


  • Why is a reference given in one case as (Hacker 169) and in another case as simply (169)?
  • What is the test for when to document?

Acknowledgement of Sources the MLA Way

Three key terms are prominent in the M.L.A. style of acknowledging sources:

  • a signal phrase is used to introduce an idea, word, phrase etc. that is borrowed from a source. e.g. In a recent book by Charles Francis…
  • a parenthetical citation or reference appears after the quotation, summary or paraphrase and should include at least the page number and sometimes the author’s name. e.g. (Francis 18)
  • works cited is the page set aside at the end of the paper on which the writer lists alphabetically by author’s last name all sources used in the paper, not just those from which words, ideas, etc. have been borrowed.

Sample Works Cited:

  • Davidson, Malcolm, “India’s population growth continues to surge.” Kitchener-Waterloo Record. 24 June, 1989: A7
  • Newberry, Lillian. “China’s births up in country, down in city survey shows.” The Toronto Star. 9 March, 1988: A6

There are three main ways to borrow information from another source: quotations, summary, and paraphrase.

Copying Exact Words

Quotations refer to the copying of the exact words of another author for the sole purpose of enhancing one’s own work. Quotations should not be used to speak for the writer, but rather to qualify what the writer has already said.


  • use your own notes to qualify what one of your own sources has already said about your topic. Acknowledge source in correct M.L.A. style.

Condensing and/or Capsulizing

“A summary condenses information from a source, perhaps capsulizing a chapter into a short paragraph or a paragraph into a single sentence.” (Hacker 170) However, any key words used in the summary must be acknowledged.


  • use your own notes to summarize a paragraph from one of your own sources into a single sentence. Acknowledge source in correct M.L.A. style.

Using Roughly the Same Number of Words in Your Own Words

“A paraphrase reports information in roughly the same number of words used by the source.” (Hacker 170) It must be emphasized again that one must not borrow extensively the exact language from a source but instead must use his or her own vocabulary.


  • use your own notes to paraphrase a short piece of information borrowed from a source that is the same number of words but in your own vocabulary. Acknowledge source in correct M.L.A. style.

Examples of Proper Citations in M.L.A. Style

Following are nine incidents and examples of proper citations followed by a series of questions:

(1) Author in Signal Phrase, Page Number in Parenthesis:

Normally the writer should introduce the material being borrowed with a signal phrase that includes the author’s name. This serves as an introduction to the quotation and also keeps the information within the parenthesis to a minimum. (Hacker 176)

For example:

  • Jonathan Mirsky reports that China’s “past attempts to lower the number of people in their country have failed and higher taxes on children and special incentives for one child families are currently in place”. (27) The signal phrase ‘Johnathan Mirsky reports’ states the author’s name and leads the reader to the Works Cited at the end of the paper. The parenthetical citation (27) gives the page number where the quotation may be found.

(2) Author and Page Number in Parenthesis:

The author’s surname appears in parenthesis with the page number reference only if it has not appeared in the signal phrase.

(3) A Title in Parenthesis:

The title of a work cited need not appear in the signal phrase or the parenthetical citation unless:

  • the writer has used two or more sources from the same author
  • two authors with the same surname appear in the Works Cited

For example:

  • Title in Signal Phrase- In Rainforests, Lois Warburton reports…
  • Title in Parenthesis- Lois Warburton reports ….faster than any other ecosystem.” (Rainforests 49)
  • Author’s Name and Title in Parenthesis- Although the baby chimpanzee lived for only a few hours, Washoe signed to it before it died. (Davis Eloquent 42)


  • In order to avoid repeating the same method or signal phrase, what are four variations that you can suggest? e.g. In the words of …

(4) Two or Three Authors of a Single Work

Name all authors in the signal phrase or include their last names in the parenthetical citation along with the page number, in the order they appear on the title of the source.

For example:

  • Krueger, Corder and Koegler agree that tropical forests are home to more than eighty percent of the earth’s plant and animal species (357).

(5) More Than Three Authors:

Name only the first author’s surname followed by ‘et al’ which, in Latin means ‘and others’. Put this either in the signal phrase or in the parenthetical citation.

For example:

  • The study was extended for two years, and only after results were duplicated on both coasts did the authors publish their results (Doe et al 137)

(6) Corporate Author:

This means that no single author’s name appears on the title page but rather a corporation’s name appears. Use the corporate name either in the signal phrase or the parenthetical expression.

For example:

  • The Ministry of the Environment warns that …(5)

(7) Unknown Author:

Use the complete title of the work in the signal phrase or a shortened version of the title with the page reference in the parenthetical citation.

For example:

  • The UFO reported by the crew of a Japan Airlines flight remains a mystery. Radar tapes did not confirm the presence of another craft. (“Strange Encounter” 26)

(8) Indirect Source:

When a writer’s quoted words appear in a source written by another author, as in a letter to the editor, the parenthetical citation will begin with the abbreviation ‘qtd. in’.

For example:

  • Malthus did not believe in birth control, in fact he referred to it as a “vice”. (qtd. in Fagan 23)


  • Find an indirect quote in a textbook or reference book that relates to your inquiry and provide the indirect quote with proper parenthetical citation.

(9) Parenthetical Citation of two or More Works:

If the writer has found two authors with the same idea and wishes to use their ideas to support his or her thesis, both authors should be cited in the parenthetical citation.

Use of Footnotes or End-notes in M.L.A. Style

When a writer uses the M.L.A. style of acknowledging sources used in a paper, footnotes or end-notes in the traditional sense are not used. The only two exceptions are as follows:

  • to provide additional information that might interrupt the flow of thought in a paper, yet is important enough to include;
  • to refer the reader to sources not included in the list of works cited.

The distinction between footnotes and end-notes is that footnotes appear at the bottom of the page while end-notes appear at the end of the paper just before works cited page.

To use either type of notes, number them consecutively throughout the paper by using a raised Arabic numeral at the end of the quotation or reference that corresponds to the number of the note.


  • Suggest information that could be included in your essay as a footnote or end-note.

List of Works Cited in M.L.A. Way

There are five rules to remember in the general setting up of the Works Cited page:

  • the heading for the page should read Works Cited and should be centered but not underlined;
  • the Works Cited is the last page of the paper;
  • the Works Cited page begins at the top of a new page and is numbered consecutively with the text of the paper;
  • sources are generally listed in alphabetical order by the surnames of the authors or editors;
  • entries are not numbered.

There are four rules to remember in the specific setting up of Works Cited page. These are demonstrated by a portion of an actual Works Cited page from an essay on Overpopulation in China and India.

Rule #1:

  • If there is no author or editor’s name given, alphabetize by the first word of the title excepting the words a, an, or the.

For example:

  • “Baby girls victims of China’s birth control policy.” The Globe and Mail. 21 June, 1982; 13.

Rule #2:

  • The date to use in the entry is the latest copyright date.

For example:

  • Broderbund. PC Globe 1992.

Rule #3:

  • The author’s name appears at the margin; the remaining parts of the entry are indented.

Rule #4:

  • Generally, information in a works cited entry is divided into parts, each separated by a period.

For example:

  • Ehrlich, Paul and Anne Ehrlich. “Population, plenty, and poverty.” National Geographic. Dec. 1988.

In a geographic essay, the following types of ‘works cited’ entries are common:

  • McCann, L.D., ed. Heartland and Hinterland: A Geography of Canada. Scarborough. Prentice Hall. 1987. (editors)
  • Burton, Robert. “Elephants.” The New Funk and Wagnalis Illustrated Wildlife Encyclopedia. 1980 ed. (Encyclopedia or Dictionary)
  • Environment Canada. Climate Change Digest. Downsview ON. Canadian Climate Center. 1993. (Government Publication)
  • Lionel, Wayne. “Abortions popular as Birth Control.” Japan Times Weekly 15 June 1992: 43 (Weekly Magazine Article)
  • Geographic Skills. Dir. John Doe. TVO, 1992 (Films and Television Programs)
  • PC Globe. Computer Software. Broderbund, 1992. IBM, disk. (Computer Software)


  • Gibaldi, Joseph, and Walter S. Achtert. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009.
  • Hacker, Diana. A Canadian Writer’s Reference. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford. St. Martin’s 2004.
  • Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 4th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973.

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