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Citations 101: What are Citation Styles?


Photograph of white and blue library bookshelves

Hello! Welcome back to Citations 101, my short series about why and how we cite. In my last post, I talked about why citing your sources is important. In this one, I'm going to introduce the concept of a citation style. Now, it might seem to some of you like the most logical approach to citations would be for everyone to do it the same way. I agree. That would be amazing. I've even shouted about it at my friends and co-workers on occasion. Alas, this is universal methos does not exist and there are multiple methods (known as styles) for citations. This post is going to teach you a little about them.


One thing about citation styles that I appreciate is, much like language, they are always evolving. While they all have been teaching people how to cite printed sources from the beginning, over time they have expanded their styles to include methods for citing sources like websites and social media platforms. The teams behind these citation styles are regularly reviewing the changing scholarly landscape and providing updates to better help you share your research and give credit to all whose work you've used.


Generally, your editor, publisher, or professor will tell you their preferred citation style for a specific piece. They might even provide you with a guide that outlines exactly how to do it (this is often called a style sheet). However, it's a good idea to be familiar with all of the common citation methods so that when you are told which one to use, it isn't a complete surprise. Learning about them now will save you time later, I promise.


The remainder of this post is a brief, very basic introduction to the three citation styles I've encountered the most in my writing life. They each have their own quirks and nuances that I might discuss in later posts, but by the end of this one, you will at least have a feel for what they are, who usually uses them, and where you would place your citations in your writing. As you get to know these styles and write in them, you will absolutely develop opinions about which style is the best and which one(s) you hate. If you do a lot of writing in your life, you may even end up in playful debates about the topic. You'll be surprised to see how passionate people are about their citation style preferences (I admit that my love of Chicago is legendary).


  • APA Official APA style website APA gets its name from the American Psychological Association, which created it. It has been in use for nearly 100 years, particularly by those writing about health and/or science. Citations in APA appear in parentheses in the body of the text, usually immediately near a quote or paraphrase from a source. Its focus is on the author(s), the year of publication, and often, the page number. As such, if you are reading a source by Kristin Smith that was published in 2013, and your quote is from page 35, you would write it as: (Smith, 2013, p.35) APA's decision to include the year in its in-text citations is important because, especially when talking about studies pertaining to health/science, it signals to the reader how long ago a researcher published their findings. In APA, the source list included at the end of an essay is called the References page.

  • Chicago Official Chicago style website Chicago style is practically as old as the University of Chicago itself, and was created in 1891. As with all of these styles, it can be used in any field, but you'll find it has a special place in the hearts of historians. Usually, Chicago citations don't go in the main text of an essay. They are indicated in the main text by a superscript number (which looks like this: ¹) and then that same number appears at the bottom (foot) of the page. The citation information is then placed at the bottom of the page, creating what is called a footnote. The first time a source is listed in a footnote, the footnote can appear rather long. It contains all the information from the source that will also be used in the source list at the end of the essay. However, after the first time, a shortened version is used (often just an author's name and page number), which is quite simple. For example, if you wanted to cite page 23 of the novel Diamond Head by Cecily Wong, you would collect the title, author's name, publication location, publisher, publication year, and page number being used. The first footnote would look like this: 1. Cecily Wong, Diamond Head (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 23. Footnotes may be a little bit more work than in-text citations at first, but they're actually great. Why? Because they take the citations out of the main text, which means if you don't want to read the references immediately, you don't have to. These citations don't interrupt the flow of your reading. However, if you do want to read the citation information (and you should!), you can see all of the information you need to look up the source yourself without having to flip (or scroll) to the end of a text to find it all. Plus, footnotes are not just for citations. They're also for extra information. If you have anything you want to add, but that doesn't belong in the main body paragraph? You get to write it there! Chicago does have a version which places citations in the body of text, but I've genuinely never seen anyone use it. If someone mentions Chicago to you, there's a 99% chance they want footnotes. In Chicago, the source list included at the end of an essay is called the Bibliography. Note: You will sometimes hear the name Turabian in the same conversation as Chicago, but don't let that confuse you. Turabian is Chicago's relative. It refers to a guide created by Kate L. Turabian, which is geared towards students, while the Chicago Manual of Style is geared toward professionals. Largely, though, the styles are the same and because of this, it would be unlikely that you'd find yourself in trouble if you used the standard Chicago style when someone mentioned using Turabian. You can read more about Turabian style here.

  • MLA Official MLA style website MLA gets its name from the Modern Language Association. It originated in 1931 as the work of the Association's executive director and one of its members. You'll generally see MLA being used by people in the humanities, especially if they are writing about literature, and I have seen it creep into history on occasion. Like APA, MLA places its citations in parentheses within the text, usually immediately next to a quote or paraphrase. Here, the focus is on the author's name and the page where you got your information. Therefore, if you were reading something by April Moundie and using page 70, your citation would be: (Moundie 70) In my experience, it is the most flexible of the citation methods discussed today. To paraphrase what my editor Dr. Emily Hamilton-Honey once commented in an email, when you have an odd source, "MLA trusts you to figure it out." Some people find this pretty liberating. In MLA, the source list included at the end of an essay is called the Works Cited page.

Do you already have a citation style that you love? Is there one you are eager to try? Do you prefer a style with a thorough guide or one that gives you more freedom? In-text or footnotes? There are so many options and each style has its own pluses and minuses. I hope the one you like the best is also the one you get to use the most often!

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