STILL BEST IN CLASS!
The Modern Language Association
has developed a crisp modern style to meet the needs of scholars working in the humanities. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
is focused on meeting the needs of students at the undergraduate level. It provides introductory chapters on research writing and academic integrity, and an excellent chapter on common and preferred usage of punctuation, italics, capitalization, numbers, and so forth, in a fraction of the space needed by other style manuals. About 40% of the text is focused on documentation--references and citations. By and large the style is easy to use and more than adequate to meet the needs of scholarship. There are shortcomings.
Secret code! The new Handbook includes a secret scratch code that gives access to the MLA Handbook website. "The Web site [sic] includes the full text of the print volume (with over two hundred additional examples), several research project narratives, sample papers, and additional resources."
Small change. The style and Handbook were long a holdout in using underlining in place of italics. They've finally capitulated to italics. Gone, too, is the attribution of authorship to Joseph Gibaldi. The MLA itself is now the only identified author. The most noteworthy change is the requirement that the medium of publication be added to every reference, even to print sources. This requirement appears driven by some misguided notion of fairness to nonprint sources (as if they cared). Print, or print facsimiles, will continue to be the preferred peer-reviewed sources for serious scholars, and the default medium. Another redundant requirement is the inclusion of the issue number in all references to journal articles, even in references to journals paged continuously. This can be a convenience when researching, but is not essential.
Struggles. The Modern Language Association continues to struggle with the Internet. The past and present editions of the MLA Handbook have both sought to confer an informational content to references other than a simple referral. As documentation is at the heart of any research style, ambiguity associated with referencing sources on the Internet is not helpful. The new Handbook equivocates. You may add a URL to an Internet reference, or not, as you choose. There is an understanding that search engines are the "card catalog" of the Internet so why bother with a URL? However, they do not take this logic the next step forward. Websites typically have their own index or site-specific search engine. Why not reference the URL to a site's index page? This is what the new APA Publication Manual does, thereby providing a simple and definitive reference format. The essential task of a reference is to lead reader to a source. If you want to add additional information use a footnote, that's what they're for.
More struggles. "There is nothing wrong with using two spaces after concluding punctuation marks [in a sentence]" (78). But, "leave one space after a period or other concluding punctuation mark [in a sentence]" (116). That's clear.
Consolidation. Beyond the features mentioned, the new MLA Handbook is little changed from the last edition. Parts are consolidated, for example a section in the first chapter on "Guides to Writing" has moved to an appendix, while the old appendixes are largely gone. Some examples have moved to the website. Identical in format and size with the last edition, the new edition is seventy pages shorter. One of these vanished appendixes presented a reference format for endnotes and footnotes. The new Handbook dispenses with the need for these by simply instructing you to link a footnote or endnote to a source on the works-cited list. The style has long been hostile to notes, but by intelligently embracing them has simplified the style. Unfortunately, if you favor illustrations, exhibits, or tables in your work you no longer have a reference format for the source note for you figure or table. These references followed the old footnote format.
Dumbing down the style? The MLA Handbook continues to deny students the use of subheadings in research papers. This is not a trivial inconvenience. About half the articles published in the MLA's own journal, PMLA, use subheadings. It is intellectually dishonest to deny students a tool that mature scholars have found so essential to their writing.
Best in Class! The MLA's style remains the easiest to use of the major styles; the Handbook is the clearest and most concise of the comparable style manuals. Still, though the editors claim simplicity is a virtue you wish they would take it to heart when it come to referencing Internet sources. Requirements in this area remain ambiguous. The Turabian-Chicago Manual for Writers and the APA Publication Manual have no difficulty with subheadings, nor does the MLA's own journal. Why not feature them in the Handbook? Are students too dumb to use this feature intelligently? If it's not essential, why does every other style present a heading-subheading format? Somewhere in an earlier edition it was claimed that instructors did not want students to use headings. Present them anyway and let those instructors that frown on their use instruct their students accordingly. It does not work the other way around. Is censorship a virtue? The MLA Handbook is very good, the best in its class. These and other peccadilloes show how it could be better.