During my career, MLA has made four significant revisions to its document style. As an undergraduate and early graduate student, I had MLA style down pat: I knew without even thinking where every comma, period, and colon went and how to handle works cited entries as well as footnotes (yes, we used footnotes then!). When the first major change came out, I dutifully committed the changes to rote memory. But by the next revision, I had had it: My head was crammed way too full of MLA trivia: I decided not to worry about getting it all “by heart,” happy simply to look up the “rules” when I needed them.
Along the way, I wrote several reference books, all of which included MLA style. Of course, we had to get everything “just right” in the books, and that meant poring over model after model to make sure that they matched the current style. Surely the word “tedious” was invented to describe this process—in vast understatement. But also along the way, sources began proliferating at a truly amazing rate. My “tools of the trade” days (listed in my syllabus on days when students were to bring in ANY question about writing) turned into workshops on documentation, as students brought in more and more obscure and out of the way sources, wondering how on earth to document them “according to MLA.” As a result, in my teaching and in my Handbooks, I have for quite some time been advising students to use their common sense and look for a model that seems closest to what they are trying to cite and use that to guide their citations. “Don’t worry or fuss over citations,” I told them. “Just do the best you can to provide your readers with the information they will need to locate that source.”
Now comes a further revision, and a very significant one at that. On April 1, 2016, MLA released the eighth edition of The MLA Handbook. And I’m delighted to say that this time around, MLA has taken pretty much the route I’ve been taking for some time. Rather than providing models for each format (books, articles, DVDs, etc.) MLA now realizes that way lies madness (students have known this for quite a while!). Instead, MLA now provides a set of “universal elements,” which writers are to use to guide their documentation: author, title of source, title of “container” (an article’s title is the title of the source; a database like JSTOR is the “container”); other contributors, version, number, publisher, publication date, and location.
Student writers provide as much of this information as possible; MLA realizes that the proliferation of sources and source types and source “containers” is so vast today that it is impossible to provide models for every format imaginable.
So—URLs are back, and DOIs are “encouraged”; publisher titles are given in full (though we can omit Company); abbreviations are fewer – and words like “editor,” “edition,” and “revised” are now written out. To my chagrin, MLA now advises writers to refer to three or more authors by the first author’s name and “et al,” a practice that erases the contributions of others and continues to valorize single authorship (I am very disappointed in this particular aspect of the “new” MLA, but some things never change. . . .). Surely oddities remain: why use // to mark stanza breaks, for example? But on the whole, this is the most succinct and sensible revision to MLA documentation style in my long career.
So—bravo for common sense and for a little leeway here and there. And here’s to remembering what is truly important about documentation: that readers can use it to identify—and double check—the sources used by others. What’s your take on this revision??
[Image Source: The Modern Language Association]