Style: MLA, Updated.

With implications for how undergraduates write, and cite, Modern Language Association releases revised handbook for preparing research papers.
March 11, 2009

Even in citations, print is the default no more. The seventh edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, released Tuesday, states that the Modern Language Association no longer recognizes print as the default medium, and suggests that the medium of publication should be included in each works cited entry.

Moreover, the MLA has ceased to recommend inclusion of URLs in citing Web-based works – unless the instructor requires it or a reader would likely be unable to locate the source otherwise. “Inclusion of URLs has proved to have limited value… for they often change, can be specific to a subscriber or a session of use, and can be so long and complex that typing them into a browser is cumbersome and prone to transcription errors. Readers are now more likely to find resources on the Web by searching for titles and authors' names than by typing URLs,” states the handbook.

The latest edition of the standard style guide for language and literary study is thinner than the last (and considerably less shiny) – thinner because it is the first to be complemented by a Web component. The password-protected Web site includes the full (and searchable) text of the handbook, plus 200 online-only examples, and a series of 30-plus-step narratives taking undergraduates through the process of writing a paper, complete with model papers available in PDF form and professors' sample comments.

A narrative describing the process of writing a paper on Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, for instance, includes 32 separate how-to entries. They discuss such steps as choosing among three topics, evaluating sources, starting the thesis, discussing fictional characters, quoting dialogue, preparing the list of works cited and formatting endnotes (plus writing the outline and first and final drafts, of course).

The narratives are intended to be used not only by students seeking guidance but also as teaching tools. “It’s a model and it shows you what an advanced undergraduate in eight or 10 pages could ideally do,” said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA. “The point that comes out immediately is it’s not a mechanical process.”

“It’s a shift from form to process, which is more and more how instructors are thinking about teaching writing,” said Sidonie Smith, chair of English at the University of Michigan.

Feal stressed that the new handbook is also more explicit about the flexible and modular nature of MLA guidelines for citations. As one example, in describing how to cite graphic narratives, the handbook notes, “Many graphic narratives are created through collaboration. Begin the entry for such a work with the name of the person whose contribution is most relevant to your research, following it with a label identifying the person’s role” (i.e. writer or illus., for illustrator). Examples, of course, follow.

The new MLA handbook costs $22; students must buy the book to access the content online, and Web-only passes aren’t available (“We still think instructors will want their students to have a physical book,” said Feal). Access to the online content will be available during the life of the seventh edition. The sixth edition was released in 2003.


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