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Citation Styles: Why Are They Different?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015 | Posted in USF Writing Studio Blog: Tips, News, and Updates by dmfarrar | No Comments »

apa-and-mlaby Ashley Annis, an MFA student at USF in Creative Writing and a Writing Studio consultant

Ever start writing a paper and see that the teacher wants it in APA as opposed to MLA, or perhaps they prefer Chicago over Turabian. What’s the difference? Most students will plug information into citation generators and call it a day, but knowing what the reasoning behind citation conventions can go a long way in making sure you have a properly formatted paper.

For the most part, here in the Writing Studio, papers will conform to APA and MLA guidelines. So, here’s a quick overview of the differences between the two and a brief explanation of why they’re different, so maybe next time, you’ll remember why you’re using direct quotes on your English Literature paper and paraphrasing ideas from a peer-reviewed study in Biology.


APA, created by the American Psychological Association, is a citation style commonly used by the social science fields—economics, psychology, sociology and others, though many nursing and other hard science courses at USF also conform to this citation style. This style focuses on borrowed credibility, meaning the writer of an APA paper should have a wide variety of sources and a relatively large amount of cited material.

The reason APA focuses on a large body of cited material is a rhetorical decision based on the purpose of these types of papers. When discussing scientific research, the more information you have to support your claim, the better (within reason, of course). By borrowing the credibility of Jones et. al, you as a writer are able to show your reader evidence of your claim by showing who has thought of this idea before.

Because APA focuses on ideas and concepts, the citation style is built to be quick and let the reader know as much information upfront as possible. The writer will focus on paraphrasing their sources more so than quoting them directly. For example:

Dr. Jones (2012), professor of Biology at Fake University, asserts that unicorns indeed did exist at one point in history.

In this brief portion, the writer borrows credibility from Dr. Jones without quoting her directly, but the reader still knows 1) who wrote the source 2) when it was published and 3) what the source’s credentials are.


MLA is a citation style made by the Modern Language Association, usually associated with the humanities and liberal arts. The focus of these disciplines is narrower, making arguments regarding precise use of language or other abstract concepts, such as human behavior or visual art. As opposed to APA, where broad, new ideas are most relevant, and the agreement of multiple sources is ideal, the scope of ideas in most MLA papers is narrower than that of an APA paper, the writer will focus on using a small number of specific quotes, which is why the in-text citation focuses on 1) who wrote the source, and 2) where to find the quote.

For example:

Romantic poetry is characterized by the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (Wordsworth 263).

We can see here that the writer’s argument focuses more on the source’s word choice than the idea, so therefore the quote itself is important. The reader knows where to find the quote immediately, thanks to the citation style.

Still Unsure?

Here’s a handy chart explaining the differences between APA and MLA.

Humanities, Art, Literature, English Psychology, Hard Sciences, Sociology
Relies heavily on quotation Discourages heavy quotation, encourages paraphrasing
Purpose of paper is to analyze and make arguments based upon existing texts Purpose is to search for and reveal new concepts or debunk existing ones
Favors single authors Encourages large collaborations

Feel free to come speak to a Writing Studio consultant when it comes to a citation style you’re unfamiliar with or have never used before (or even ones that you have used before but you just want more clarity). We’d be more than happy to help answer any further questions you have. But isn’t it nice to know that citation styles do have a rhyme and reason?


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