« Some say | Main | With friends like this »

What would the MLA say?

A reader named Mae raises a nice* point about acknowledging sources:

Suppose that a writer reads a source with an interesting reference, and then looks up the reference and reads an entire article, call it A. Later citing the material, the writer makes direct and indirect quotes from A, properly cited. Should the writer also cite the original referral source?

I think this is more likely to happen with online articles/blogs, where A is only one click away. But proper citation among web sources is a growing issue: and I think that the traditional gatekeepers (you) are best equipped to tell us what to do.

It has been a long time since I was a cadet member of the Modern Language Association, and I long ago gave up any attempt to write scholarly articles (another nice point, whether scholarship or I should be more relieved), so I may not be the best source of information about what the most formal gatekeepers say. But I think that the formal requirement is met by citing the article being quoted or summarized. If I come across a citation of an article in the bibliography of a book and subsequently quote the article, I don’t think that I’m honor-bound to cite the book as well.

But, as you suggest, the online world is developing slightly differently.

On this blog, for example, I usually mention the site that leads me to another source. That is because bloggery is a conversation, and it seems right to identify the parties to the conversation. It also serves to drive traffic to those fellow writers. Naming the source of a source probably fosters humility as well, rather than giving the impression of some omniscient personal scanning of the Internet.

So, strictly speaking, you must indicate the primary source of information, the article you quote, the post from which you take the actual information, whatever. Given the skepticism among the public about the probity of journalists, and the scary, Wild West, anything-goes blogosphere, showing the sources is a necessity.

Naming the sources of sources is, I think, more of a courtesy that a requirement. But it can’t hurt, so long as you find ways to do it without making your own posts unreadable through the thicket of references.

As always, I await contradiction and correction in the comments submitted.


* I’m going to insist on being able to use nice in its older sense of subtle or indicating careful discrimination — the sense allied to the word nicety.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (4)


The general movement of the internet -- at least, the parts aiming for credibility -- seems to follow suit with your line of thinking: link the initial article, and add another link to the article that you read referring you there.

Lifehacker, for example (indeed, most of the Gawker group) will sign off on such posts with a "via" link (as in this example), and that practice seems commonplace with any site striving for a measure of credibility or class.

I've have been given the opposite advice in an academic publishing context. The argument, which didn't really persuade me, was that in the world of citation-counting, the instrumental role of the intermediary should be acknowledged (well, more to the point, should be counted.)

To me, quoting or giving credit to where you heard about an article is similar to saying "I heard it from my doctor's receptionist's dog walker's mother-in-law's sister's babysitter." By the end of the reference, I have to ask "Huh? Who cares? Just tell me what source you're quoting, not who told you about the source."

Why muddy the quote? Just because I was inspired to check it out doesn't automatically make the person who mentioned it instrumental in whatever final usage I get from the article or what-have-you. Maybe as a shout-out in the "thank you" page, but not in the references.

Do I have to mention I like the Beatles because I first heard them when listening to Oasis?

Ooh. Sam's comment is interesting in that it points out a reason for thorough footnoting other than The Importance of Proper Attribution.

If you came to the Beatles' music through their influence on Oasis, well, that could say something interesting about you and your opinions. Were you a music critic, it might have relevance to your criticism or just be worth mentioning in its own right.

Yes, it is muddying, as you put it. And no, you don't have to do it. In fact, take it to an extreme and we get something like Eliot's (winking) pedantic endnotes to "The Waste Land", and several sadly earnest attempts to trace the influences and citations therein.

But hey, print's cheap, especially on the Web. And some of us have time to kill.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected