Seven Suggestions for Citing Sources

I. Don't Plagiarize

The word “plagiarism” comes from the Latin word plagiarius, which means “kidnapper.” Writers commit plagiarism when they “kidnap” someone else's work without acknowledging the source. Documentation is not required when you use information that is common knowledge. Documentation is required in the following circumstances:

  • When you quote, paraphrase, or use another person's words, thoughts, ideas, graphs, charts, artworks, etc.
  • When you refer to statistics and studies that the reader will want to verify

II. Determine what documentation style you should use. If you're unsure, ask your professor

There are many different style guides, including specialized guides for medical and legal writing. Four of the most common are:

  • Modern Language Association (MLA)
  • American Psychological Association (APA)
  • Chicago Manual of Style
  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual

III. Cite your sources in the body of the paper and on a reference or works cited page

For details, see our handouts on each style format. Here are a few pointers:

  • MLA uses “in-text” citation, in which the source is cited in parentheses at the end of the quotation or paraphrase. (The examples on this hand-out are all in MLA style.) In MLA, the reference page is called “Works Cited.”
  • APA also uses “in-text” citations. In APA, the reference page is called “References.”
  • The Chicago Manual of Style uses footnotes for citations within the body of the paper.

IV. If you use another person's words, ideas, or arguments, decide whether to quote (using the source's exact words) or paraphrase (putting the ideas in your own words)

Try to avoid filling your paper with long quotations or stringing one quotation after another. Unless you have a good reason for quoting verbatim, it is better to paraphrase. Reasons to quote directly include:

  • When the original language is so fresh, original, vivid or expressive that to paraphrase would detract from the power of the source;
  • When exact wording is necessary to convey technical or scientific facts accurately;
  • When it is important to let the contenders in a debate or controversy explain their positions in their own words;
  • When the words of an important authority will lend weight or credibility to an argument; or
  • When the language of the source is itself the topic of your discussion.

V. When you paraphrase, make sure that your paraphrase is accurate, that it is entirely in your own words, and that you cite the source

VI. When quoting a source, follow this rule: Introduce, Reproduce, Interpret.

Introduce / Reproduce: To avoid “dropped quotations,” give your reader some idea of the context of the passage by using a “signal phrase” or clause that leads into the quoted passage. Your signal phrase can take several forms.

  • The signal phrase may contain a reporting verb (such as said, remarked, argued, observed). The verb should be followed with a comma. Example: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (10).
  • The quotation may be integrated smoothly into one of your sentences.Example: Professor Carberry found “very disturbing evidence” of irrationality in numbers (36).
  • The lead-in may be a complete sentence that points toward the quotation. In this case, a colon precedes the quotation. Example: Professor Carberry's conclusion has become famous: “I have discovered very disturbing evidence that suggests many numbers may behave in an irrational manner” (36). 
    Interpret: Show your reader how you interpret the quoted passage. (This rule is especially important for analytical papers and papers in the humanities). Example: As he prepares to fight the dragon that has been terrorizing his people, Beowulf announces, “I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning” (Beowulf, ll. 2510-2515). Here is where we see Beowulf committing motivational errors. He does not wish to strike down the monster to ensure the safety of his people; instead, he seeks fame, glory, and acclaim.” Note that in the italicized sentence, the writer analyzes the meaning of the quotation and repeats a key word (“glory”).

VII. If you change a quotation in any way, you must indicate that you have done so

You may shorten a quotation by omitting unnecessary information. In this case, omitted words are indicated by ellipsis marks (3 spaced periods). If your quotation includes parts of two different sentences, use four periods. Example: “I have a dream that…children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character (10). [Here we have cut the words “my four little.”]

You may change a quotation to integrate it into the flow and grammar of your own sentence. This may involve adding a word, changing plurals or changing tenses. Indicate such changes by putting the added material in brackets. Example: Dr. King expressed his hopes that each child “will not be judged by the color of [his or her] skin but by the content of [his or her] character ” (10).

Fran Hooker, 2006

Adapted from a handout by Nancy Pope