Using Parenthetical Documentation

For more information on this topic, see the lesson “Documenting Sources and Writing a Bibliography/Works Cited.”

Image of MLA Handbook.

Source: MLA Handbook, Modern
Language Association of America,
Wikimedia Commons

When you use the work of others in your research papers and essays, it’s imperative that you acknowledge where you got your outside information. If you don’t, you could be accused of plagiarism. There are various ways to document sources. Your choice will depend on which writing style guide your class or school uses. Most English classes use MLA style, so that is the documentation style we demonstrate in these lessons. Other style guides include The Chicago Manual of Style and APA (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association).

As I said in the introduction, the sources of all quotations must be identified with parenthetical documentation, also called in-text citation. If you directly quote someone’s spoken or written words, no matter how inconsequential they may seem, you must identify the source and the page number (if there is a page number).

Indirect quotations also require documentation. The only exception to this rule is an indirect quotation that consists of common knowledge; common knowledge does not need parenthetical documentation. How does somone know what information needs parenthetical documentation and what doesn’t?

Deciding when you need to give credit

Need to Give Credit in the Text

Don’t Need to Give Credit in the Text

  • When you use the same words or even a unique phrase from someone else’s work or writing (direct quotation)

  • When you paraphrase or summarize information that is not common knowledge (indirect quotation)

  • When you use or refer to another person’s words or ideas from a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium

  • When you interview or talk to someone face-to-face, on the phone, or in writing (e-mail or otherwise), and use this information in part or in whole

  • When you copy any diagrams, illustrations, cartoons, charts, pictures, or other visuals

  • When you reuse or repost any electronically accessed information, including images, audio, video, or other media from places such as e-books, Web sites, library databases, CDs, DVDs, iTunes, forums, or chat spaces

Basically, if your information is obtained from somewhere else, or someone else, and isn’t something most people would know,
document it.

  • When you share personal experiences, observations, or opinions

  • When you use common knowledge that’s available in at least five credible sources and is information you believe your readers already know—information that a person could easily find in general reference sources, or information that is not arguable or based on any particular way of thinking—for example, folklore, common sense observations, myths, and historical events (but not historical documents)

    For example, July 4, 1776 is Independence Day and can be confirmed in more than five sources. Most people in the United States would know this fact.

  • When you state generally accepted facts (such as “Eating fruits and vegetables every day is better than eating the same amount of candy and chips.”)

  • When you use work that you have created such as posters, artworks, videos, and podcasts

  • When you write results that you obtained through your own experiments (such as noting how many of your homeroom classmates wear black each day)

If you’re unsure about citing information, go ahead and cite.

See how well you can separate common knowledge from facts that should be cited. Choose the correct answer for each statement below.

A photograph of hands typing on a laptop computer keyboard.

Source: typpity-typpity. Amanky, Flickr

In the MLA documentation style, a short parenthetical citation is placed at the end of a quotation. This in-text citation refers the reader to the list of works cited for more complete information about the source. (The works cited list is called a bibliography by some other style guides.) Most citations consist of the author’s last name and a page number (for example: Smith 47).

For a complete list of the many parenthetical documentation possibilities, consult the newest edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Below are a few examples of how in-text MLA citation would look for certain sources:

Punctuating parenthetical citations

(or “Here We Go Again” With Exceptions to the Basic Punctuation Rules)