MLA, APA, CMS; know what they are? No, they’re not brand names or military jargon.These abbreviations stand for citation styles used in scholarly writing. Depending on the subject, each style has aspects that cater to particular needs. However, these three styles generally accomplish the same goal; presenting readers with resource information. Follow along to discover what each citation style covers, and how they’re actually more similar than you think.



The most common citation style, Modern Language Association (MLA), is typically the first introduced to young students. Humanities subjects utilize this style regularly, including art, literature and theatre. In these fields, knowing the author of a resource is most important. A reader wants to know who is behind the evidence, whether it is someone recognizable or hardly known. However, this doesn’t mean respected authors have to be alive. Information from hundreds of years ago may still be just as influential as modern analysis. MLA also includes the date of the source and the medium (print, website, reference book, etc.). This is especially helpful when dealing with versions of literature that have changed over time or had different translations. See the example below to view a standard MLA book citation.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London: Chapman and Hall, 1859. Print.


The American Psychological Association (APA) is another widely used citation style. Scientific fields including psychology and sociology rely on APA to show them their most important information: dates. As opposed to the humanities, scientific fields have to know when a source was written. The published date is vital in cutting edge research and fields that continue to expand even today. There’s also an attempt in these fields to remove bias from academic works. For this reason, reference citations use an author’s first initial to inhibit readers from identifying gender. Below, compare the APA citation with the previous MLA citation above.

Dickens, C. (1859). A tale of two cities. London: Chapman and Hall.


The least used citation style, Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), is utilized primarily by history academics. What makes CMS unique is that citations are not only found in-text. To make identifying sources faster, footnotes and endnotes are used heavily along with bibliographies. Moving away from lengthy in-text citations allows readers to focus on evidence at hand and refer to references later. Readers will see the basic citation remains similar to MLA and APA styles.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. London: Chapman and Hall, 1859.

Essentially, each style provides the same information; the difference is in the details. For literature it’s who an author is, sciences need the date of publication, and historians require more efficient citation methods. As a reminder, citation styles weren’t created to purely frustrate young writers. Citing sources is imperative in all academic writing, and must be considered essential to all students. With some practice and help from style guides, anyone can manage even the longest research paper bibliographies.

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