Three Parts of a Successful In-Text Citation

There are a few different ways to create successful in-text citations in MLA, but we recommend a three part method for creating citations that are guaranteed to succeed.

This citation method uses three elements for each citation:

A Signal Phrase
Cited/Quoted Material
Location Information

If you build your citations with these three parts in mind, your essays will do well in the area of citation formatting.

Let’s walk through each part of the citation and look at some examples. Take your time as you read.

If you want to be sure you are really getting it, you may want to open a web article, open a blank Word document, and use these strategies to create a citation of your own.


The Signal Phrase 

The signal phrase functions as an indicator or flag, signaling the fact that the material to come is drawn from an outside source.

  • This helps to distinguish your own ideas from those of your sources, giving proper credit to the author(s) being cited and thus avoiding plagiarism.
  • Signal phrases also help a reader to locate and verify the material you are citing by providing information that links to items on your Works Cited page.

Example signal phrases:

  • According to legal expert, John Dawes…
  • In Hammers and Nails, Clark argues…
  • Scholars have suggested that…
  • Author JOHN DOE claims…

Quoted and/or paraphrased material will follow the signal phrase.

Strategies for Success: Always Use a Signal Phrase

Technically, you do not always need to use a signal phrase to precede cited material. However, using a signal phrase is always helpful and therefore recommended.

Two main benefits of preceding cited content with a signal phrase are (1) the reader will know exactly where your ideas end and those of a source begin and (2) there is no chance that you will be accused of plagiarism. Each of these are important.

So, our advice is to always use a signal phrase in front of any cited material.

  • Start a citation with lead-in material that clearly indicates the essay is about to bring in ideas and/or information from a research source. 
Note: This is not a universal rule. There are many ways to correctly structure an in-text citation in MLA.

Cited/Quoted Material

In this citation method, we will follow the signal phrase with our quoted or paraphrased material. (Follow the link here for more information on the specifics of these two versions of in-text citations.)

When selecting material to cite, we want to stick to a few rules of thumb:

  • Only use material that is relevant to the essay’s main idea
  • Only use cite material that is also relevant to the specific paragraph in which it appears
  • Make sure the source is reputable and credible
  • Make sure the information is valid and up to date

Outside of these considerations, we have quite a bit of flexibility. We can quote single words if that helps our paper. We can quote phrases that appear at the beginning of a sentence or phrases that appear at the end of a sentence. We can quote whole sentences or multiple sentences.

Note: Once the quotation reaches four or more lines on the page of our essay, we will switch to block quotation formatting.

The take-away: The amount of material appearing in a citation is really up to the writer. There is no rule about how much is too little or how much is too much.

We just don’t want to include any more material than we really need. We want to avoid using citations as “filler.” Instead our goal should be to use in-text citations as evidence to win the case our paper has set out to argue.


Location Information

Location information refers to the specific place where the cited material was found.

This is sometimes a book with a page number. Sometimes it is an article title with no page number. Often, location information will simply take the form of an author’s name.

  • A reader should be able to take the information from your in-text citation, match it to the information provided on the Works Cited page and track down the specific text (and portion of the text) being paraphrased or quoted. 
  • For MLA, we do not need to include paragraph numbers, but we do always want to include a page number if the original text has page numbers.
  • When citing from web articles, we do not need to include page numbers since the original text does not include them. 

When we name an author, article title, or publication title, this information can be placed in the signal phrase. 

Any other necessary location information is provided in parenthesis at the end of the sentence to guide a reader to the exact place the citation is being pulled from.

Here are some examples:

Sample Citations Showing Different “Location Information” Placement

According to Alex Dunn, boxing legend Muhammad Ali turned to Islam “specifically for its liberation theology” (93).

The Huffington Post reports that associates of Kanye West claim the musician’s public persona is an act and “West isn’t actually arrogant. Apparently, in secret, West is ‘humble’” (Van Luling).

Recent studies have shown that “each year millions of Americans can be considered food insecure” (Kristof). 

Composition pedagogy experts agree that “The key is to make a claim (topic sentence), support it with specific detail (give examples and provide specific information), and then conclude the paragraph by reinforcing the original claim (final sentence)” (AIMS Writing Center). 

Note that in each of these examples, we know where the citation is coming from either because the author is clearly named, the article/book title is clearly indicated, or the publication is named. In some of these examples, more than one piece of information is included. 

For each of these examples, a reader should have no problem turning to the Works Cited section and identifying which entry there matches the in-text citation.

That is one of the goals of an in-text citation – to direct a reader back to the source of the information being cited.

Special Citation Situations

You may come across sources that do not seem to easily fit into the standard citation rubric.

Is your source produced by an agency like the CDC? Is your source being cited within an article by a different writer?

These issues are fairly common. There are conventions for how to deal with these issues.

Take a look at our notes on these special citation situations for guidance on how to create successful in-text citations even with some source complications.

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