Why Are There So Many Citation Formats?!

It seems every time you go to a new class, they’ll want you to use a different format for your citations on your essays.  While some fields pretty much use one format regularly—psychology, for example, nearly always uses APA format, while literature prefers MLA—that distinction isn’t always clear, especially at the undergrad level.

So, what’s the difference between these formats?  What’s the point of having an APA format and a MLA format and Chicago format and so on?

The Origin of Citation Formats

All formats have the same basic goal—to make it easy for readers to track down and identify the sources you’re using.  They strive to create a standardized system so that readers can easily, at a glance, identify all the various sources without having to figure out precisely what you’re trying to say.  Standardizing these citations is a useful concept.

Unfortunately, there are competing standards.  It’s not unlike the Macs v. PC computer debate—both are computers, but they work differently and are made by different companies, meaning things that work on one system doesn’t necessarily work on the other.

MLA style was developed by the Modern Language Association, a group of scholars dealing with language and literature.  APA style was developed by the American Psychological Association, which is the world’s largest group of psychologists.  Chicago style was published by the University of Chicago.  All of these groups had specific issues they wanted to make sure their citation standards covered, and so all three work slightly differently.

Difference Between Citation Formats

So, what are these differences?   There are literally hundreds of slight differences, but here are a few main ones to remember:

  • In MLA and Chicago formats, the author is the most important piece of information, while in APA, it’s the date. This is because the MLA format was designed by writers, and highlights the origination of ideas.  APA format was designed by scientists, and highlights the latest and most up-to-date research.
  • In citations, MLA format uses the author’s full name and capitalizes all major words in the title of the book or article. APA format uses the author’s first initial (so B. Knowles instead of Bryan Knowles), and uses something called “sentence case”—only capitalize the first word of the title and/or subtitle (For example: “My book: The important subtitle” would be correct in APA formatting)
  • When you’re citing something in text, MLA format wants the author’s last name and page number before the final punctuation, so (Knowles 10) would be correct. APA format wants the author’s last name, year and page number, so you’d use (Knowles, 2014, p. 10).  Note that APA format has commas, while MLA format does not.

Remembering those few differences will, in all honesty, help you with 90 percent of your citation worries.  For more details, you should look at the original guides for the formats: the APA Publication Manual, the MLA Handbook or the Chicago Manual of Style.

If you really need to check your citations are correct, stop by Wordsmith Essaysorder page.  We’ll check all your formatting and editing and make sure that you’re sticking to the letter of the style guides.  Check us out today!


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