So you don’t want to plagiarize someone else’s work...great choice. It is both hauntingly unethical and a drag if you get caught, so sticking to citing your sources is for the best, any way you slice it. There are a lot of ways to go about doing this, so we’d better jump in right away.

How to Cite Sources

There are a few different formulas for citing sources, and which one you should use often depends on the academic discipline your writing falls under. The most widely used citation styles, and the ones we will be exploring in this article, are the APA, MLA, and Chicago styles.

You can either cite your sources manually, by looking at citation formulas and regulations  and then researching the appropriate input information, or you can use an online citation generator. Citation generator tools, like QuillBot’s, will automatically pull in and plug in all of the necessary information from your source, leaving you to simply check it and move on.

How to cite generally comes down to preference. While you’re learning how to write a citation and going through the motions of building out those formulas, you’ll quickly learn whether you prefer manually citing or using an online tool. Don’t worry━once you’re through with this guide, you’ll be an expert in how to cite sources, however you choose to do it.

The Importance of Citations

A comic depicting two friends discussing citations and plagiarism.
Don't be Merv. (Source: unshelved.com)

You’re kicking. You’re screaming. You’re cursing the universe, wondering: “Why is citation important? Why must I cite my sources?” You’re a little bit dramatic, but well within your rights to question this.

The main reason that supports the importance of citation is avoiding plagiarism. Plagiarism, if you’re not familiar, is the act of passing someone else’s ideas or work off as your own. This is highly unethical and can result in the automatic failure of a class/assignment, suspension, expulsion, or, in some cases, legal consequences. Students, especially, should never compromise their values when it comes to plagiarism because this particular offense, if committed, is usually noted on your school transcripts forever.

When answering the question of when you need to cite your sources, the response is rather black-and-white. You need to cite whenever you use someone else’s work to bolster your own─if you didn’t know it before, and you want to use the information now, then you need to cite it! This includes paraphrased language. Similarly, if you summarize a text and use that summary in your work, you must cite the original source as well. Even mentioning ideas requires a citation, because without that acknowledgement of the source, it will falsely look like that idea or conclusion is your own.

“You need to cite whenever you use someone else’s work to bolster your own─if you didn’t know it before, and you want to use the information now, then you need to cite it!”

Citation Formats and Examples of Citation Styles

A chart explaining the differences between in-text citations and references.
A handy chart. (Source: pediaa.com)

There are two main types of citations━those that appear in the Works Cited, References, or Bibliography, which are full citations, and in-text citations. You typically add a complete list of every work which went into building your essay or article at the end of your document. Depending on the citation style and your preference, it may be labelled differently (e.g. References, Works Cited), but this list will always include the full citations for each of your sources. A full citation includes information like the names, publication dates, where the source was published and/or by whom, date of access for web pages, page numbers, and more, depending on which style you use.

In-text citations are noted within the body or content of your work, rather than at the end of it. These citations are typically much shorter than the full citation, are housed in brackets or parentheses, and often contain information like the source author’s last name, book page number(s), and/or year of publication, depending on the appropriate style. In-text citations are helpful to both readers and authors in that they notate where each idea, fact, or quote comes from, right when you talk about it. In some styles, like APA, it is encouraged to add in-text citations at any point in the sentence whenever information from that source is presented, while other styles, such as MLA, encourage referencing citations at the end of the sentence, except in certain instances. All in-text citations should have a corresponding full citation within the Works Cited, References, or Bibliography page.

Now that you understand the two basic types of citations, along with why and when you should cite your sources, let’s go through exactly how to cite your sources in a few of the different styles. Citation formats vary between each style, making each one unique for a specific use or discipline. Read on for the citation examples you’ve been waiting for.

How to Cite APA

APA stands for American Psychological Association, and the APA format is most often used in Psychology, Education, Business, Engineering, and some sciences. In APA format, full citations are listed on a References page, rather than a Works Cited or Bibliography page. Let’s take a look at how to cite in APA format.

In-text Citations

There are many more rules for how to write an in-text APA citation than there are for other citation styles. If you are paraphrasing or referencing a text’s general idea or message, the parenthetical citation will look like this: (author’s last name, publication year) or (Pfeifer, 2020). If the last name is used already in your sentence, then you may just cite the publication year, like so: (publication year) or (2020). There is always a comma in between the name and the year, if both are used in the in-text citation. The parenthetical citation itself always comes immediately after the paraphrased information, or quotation marks for direct quotes, but before the end punctuation of the sentence. APA in-text citations can occur at any point in a sentence, be it in the beginning or at the end, just so long as it directly follows the information or ideas which originate from another source.

If you are citing a direct quote, your parenthetical citation will look like this: (author’s last name, publication year, p./pp. page number) or (Dave, 2021, pp. 7-13). The “p.” is used to denote a single page (e.g., “p. 7”), while “pp.” is used to reference multiple pages (e.g., “pp. 2-4”). If there are no pages, but it is still a direct quote, you may find a substitution, such as a figure or table number. You could even note the paragraph number (e.g., “second paragraph”) to more specifically show where the information was taken from within the multi-page work.

Examples: Holden Caulfield is full of little wisdoms, like “all morons hate you when you call them a moron” (Salinger, 1951, p. 44).

Salinger wrote his protagonist, Holden Caulfield, to be full of little wisdoms, like “all morons hate you when you call them a moron” (1951, p. 44).

Reference Entry Citations

The formula for how to write an APA citation for your Reference page is as follows:

Author. (Date of publication). Title. Source/publisher.

Example: Salinger, J. D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Company.

How to Cite MLA

MLA format is most often used to cite sources in the Humanities, like History, Language, Literature, and Philosophy. MLA began as a citation style for literature and language specifically, but it was quickly adopted by other disciplines under the Humanities umbrella. Full citations in MLA format are always listed on a Works Cited page.  Let’s take a look at how to cite in MLA format.

In-text Citations

MLA format uses parenthetical citations for in-text references, and the preferred placement for in-text citations, as per the style guide, is at the end of a sentence. When citing a text, the format is (author’s last name page number) or (Khan 11). If the last name is used already in your sentence, then you may just cite the page number from which the quote or information was taken, like so: (page number) or (11). No punctuation should exist inside the parentheses, and the parentheses should always come before the sentence’s final punctuation mark, but after the quotation marks, for direct quotes.

Examples: Holden Caulfield is full of little wisdoms, like “all morons hate you when you call them a moron” (Salinger 44).

Salinger wrote his protagonist, Holden Caulfield, to be full of little wisdoms, like “all morons hate you when you call them a moron” (44).

Works Cited or Full MLA Citations

MLA Works Cited entries have a very specific structure to them, but don’t worry━they’re very easy! Here is how to write a full MLA citation for a Works Cited page:

Author. “Title of source.” Title of the Container, Other contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication date, Location.

The container is where the source comes from, so it could be the title of the anthology, newspaper, magazine, etc., where your source was found. Not all pieces in this formula will be used every time. For instance, standalone works do not have a container that is separate from their title. It is enough to have just the author, title, and year of publication, if that’s all you’ve got. The more relevant information you can add here, the better, though.

Example: Salinger, J.D. “The Catcher in the Rye.” Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

How to Cite Chicago Style

Chicago style citations are often used in Fine Arts, Anthropology, select other sciences and humanities, as well as for manuscript publication and editing. The Chicago format has a few different stylistic options, depending on the specific field of study the research falls under, but the most commonly used style is Author-Date. Chicago style format uses a Bibliography page to list all of the full citations used within a body of work. Let’s take a look at how to cite Chicago style.

In-text Citations

The structure for a Chicago style Author-Date in-text citation is as follows: (author’s last name publication year, page number or range) or (Agarwal 2019, 88-90). If the last name is used already in your sentence, then you may just cite the date and page number the quote was taken from, like so: (publication year, page number) or (2019, 88-90). If you’re referencing the text as a whole, the page number is unnecessary.

Examples: Holden Caulfield is full of little wisdoms, like “all morons hate you when you call them a moron” (Salinger 1951, 44).

Salinger wrote his protagonist, Holden Caulfield, to be full of little wisdoms, like “all morons hate you when you call them a moron” (1951, 44).

There is always a comma in between the publication year and the page number. The parenthetical citation should be placed after the paraphrased information or direct quote, but before the end punctuation of the sentence.

Bibliographical Citations

Chicago style citations are listed in a Bibliography page instead of a Works Cited page or References page. The Chicago format example for bibliographies in the Author-Date style is as follows:

Author Last Name, First Name. Publication year. Book Title: Subtitle. City of publication: Publisher.

Example: Salinger, J. D. 1951. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Final Thoughts on Citing Your Sources

Bart Simpson writing "I will not plagiarize another's work" over and over on the chalkboard.
Word. (Source: Stone Bookworms)

Remember to always, always, always cite your sources. No matter if you’re taking a direct quote from a source or paraphrasing something the author said in an interview, it is of the utmost importance to give credit where credit is due. The consequences of plagiarism can follow you around in life and in your career, and it just isn’t worth it to compromise your academic integrity. Plus, with fast and easy online tools, like QuillBot’s free citation generator, you can passively learn just by reviewing and checking the automatic outputs.