TEXT review

Flexible frameworks for ‘unruly’ formats

review by Roslyn Petelin


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MLA Handbook Eighth Edition
The Modern Language Association, NY USA 2016
ISBN 9781603292627
Pb 160pp USD12.00


In a recent article in the LA Review of Books, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, the current Director of Scholarly Communication at the Modern Language Association (MLA) in New York, lists the most ‘unruly’ format request that her office had received up to that point: how to cite ‘a book that a player reads within the action of a video game’ (Fitzpatrick 2016). For several years, the MLA office had constantly received questions about how to document new genres such as a tweet, an Instagram image, an e-mail message, a YouTube video, a blog post, a DVD, an e-book, and so on. These requests about how to cite new textual formats galvanised the venerable MLA (founded in 1883) to prepare the 8th edition of its handbook, which at 146 pages is exactly half the size of the 2009 292-page 7th edition.

The MLA had realised that it needed to replace its prescriptive list of citation formats for ‘each kind of source’, as set out in the 7th and earlier editions, with a universal and flexible documentation framework comprising core elements (with punctuation supplied) that could be applied to all the kinds of texts arising from the ever-changing digital environment.

MLA in-text citation style has traditionally been based on an author-title format, unlike the author-date format in place in TEXT journal. The new handbook, published mid-way through 2016, is in two parts: the principles, followed by the details. A template is included at the end that lists the core elements of texts: author/s; title of source; title of container (book [of essays, short stories, poems, etc.], periodical, television series, Web site); other contributors (those who adapt, edit, direct, illustrate, introduce, perform, and translate); version; number; publisher; publication date; and location. The handbook features lots of illustrations of the filled-in template. The website, style.mla.org, also contains the template and other helpful information.

MLA’s aim was to eliminate the requests for updated formatting instructions that its office received when new modes of publication were ‘invented, combined, and modified’, while providing writers of academic documents with guidance about how to create comprehensible and reliable references to their research – the core principle of academic writing.

Fitzpatrick’s preface addresses the speculation, expressed most widely by Tim Parks, the British novelist and translator, that search engines and full-text databases on the Internet have rendered source information ‘superfluous’. While Fitzpatrick accepts that ‘scholarly documentation has over decades acquired increasingly complex rules and formats’, she claims that scholars’ ‘increasing use of tools and resources ... makes the inclusion of a reliable data trail for future searchers even more important’ (ix). She goes on to emphasise ‘the increasing mobility’ of ‘locations and formats of texts’, so that the reasons for documenting sources and ‘scholarly conversation’ in the academy extend ‘beyond simply giving generic credit from which a quotation or other borrowing was derived’ (x). In discussing whether citations could be done away with, as Parks suggests, she mentions the varying degrees of reliability and precision that editions and translations exhibit: ‘their very malleability may heighten the importance for future scholars of knowing precisely which version today’s researcher consulted’ (2016).

In presenting its new framework for citation practices, Fitzpatrick states that the MLA ‘took the opportunity to put all the rules aside and imagine how we’d create an entirely new style today, from the ground up ... establish a set of principles that provides a flexibility that works with rather than against writers’ (2016).

For 133 years, the MLA has led humanities scholarship and publication, so it’s good to see it leading the way with the shift that the 8th edition of The MLA Handbook represents in accommodating genres published on new digital platforms, though I think that the claim that it has created ‘an entirely new style’ would be regarded as somewhat hyperbolic by experienced academics. The most valuable location for the handbook will be in the hands of humanities students new to the academy. And the most valuable part of the handbook for them will be the template. It will be interesting to see whether the American Psychological Association (APA) follows MLA’s lead by developing a template to guide scholars using APA style (or its offshoot, Harvard style, as used in TEXT journal articles).

It’s a pity that, in their future-proofed re-working of prescriptive rules that this handbook represents, the MLA still hyphenates ‘e-mail’, still capitalises ‘Website’ and ‘Internet’, and still has not adopted the singular ‘they’ – a convention which Australia has widely and happily used for more than 30 years. Perhaps the promise made in the foreword by Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, in describing the shift as ‘one of our greatest shifts ever’ to make further changes to accommodate new media in further iterations of the handbook will also include changes to their conservative style.


Works cited



Associate Professor Roslyn Petelin designed and initiated the award-winning postgraduate Program in Writing, Editing, and Publishing at the University of Queensland, and developed the hugely successful international WRITE101X English Grammar and Style, an edX MOOC, which has attracted more than 300,000 registrants to date. She edited the Australian Journal of Communication from 1988-2013, is co-author of The Professional Writing Guide and Professional Communication, and consults internationally to government and other organisations on writing, editing, and information design. Her latest book is How Writing Works, published in October 2016 by Allen & Unwin.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste