Why I Hate the New 'MLA Handbook'

The just-published eighth edition is a disservice to students and a potential disaster for scholars

September 14, 2016

Tim Cook for The Chronicle Review
A s the fall term begins, the shelves of college bookstores across the country are piled with a slim new edition of the MLA Handbook, standard-bearer of MLA style, the most widely used form of citation in undergraduate writing. Since the April debut of the eighth edition, every academic publisher that puts out a first-year composition handbook, and every website devoted to helping college students write papers, has been tearing up old pages, rewriting thousands of words of explanation, examples, box quotes, and illustrations, and planning revised editions and supplements to conform to the new guidelines.

All of that work, I am afraid, is fundamentally wasted, or worse than wasted. The new 146-page stylebook is not only light in weight but catastrophically light in value. Its approach to citation in English studies needs to be recalled, rethought, redone — even repudiated — by the community of scholars whose professional discourse is implicated in the choices our leadership has, I hope not irreversibly, made.

I am not ordinarily the kind of person who makes this sort of protest — I’m just the opposite, in fact. The Modern Language Association has put out new editions of its student-oriented MLA Handbook or its scholarly MLA Style Manual half a dozen times during my college career as an English instructor. Until now I have adjusted to each set of modifications neutrally, sometimes even approvingly.

As a more or less steadily publishing academic writer, I value the rules and philosophies embodied in stylebooks. As a former journalist, I have been trained to consider house styles correct by definition, not even subject to argument. As a regular instructor of first-year college composition, I go out of my way to make sure my class sessions on "style" are not rote exercises but significant teaching moments.

Style matters, I tell students. Rules set by the MLA or the American Psychological Association are not arbitrary conventions or meaningless hoops to jump through, as some frustrated undergraduates assume. Style guides are something far more important: windows into the histories and values of entire intellectual disciplines.

As lawyers, historians, journalists, scientists, and other learned communities write and publish for themselves and for the general public, their members gradually come to agree that their professional discourse should take certain forms and embody certain values. Learning the codes that a field has worked out for itself can take us a long way toward understanding its worldview. The precision and thoroughness of, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style, widely used in history, grows from the rigor prized by historians, and the wide range of their potential sources of information. The spare, impersonal progressivism of APA style reflects parallel values in the social sciences.

And MLA style? To prepare for the new semester I have been studying the altered form of my own professional discourse laid out in the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook and feeling something close to despair about where, on its evidence, the scholarly study of language and literature must be headed. Based on this new edition, what does my own beloved discipline of English know and value?

Not nearly what it used to.

For example, I have long taught my students that scholars of English value and celebrate the concentrated power of language itself. That, I tell them, is why MLA style is the most efficiently constructed of all styles — free of unnecessary or redundant words, letters, or even punctuation marks. It’s why in-text citations — themselves containing only the minimum necessary codes — free the reader from having to glance at the bottom of a page to check a footnote. It is also why the MLA style I have taught for 20 years had no need for the redundant "vol.," "no.," or "pp." in citations of scholarly articles. In our well-designed style, the location of each number within the citation already clearly indicated what it referred to.

Apparently I can no longer make that claim. In the eighth edition, the abbreviations considered unnecessary by English scholars for more than 30 years — "vol.," "no.," "pp." — are now not even optional. Henceforth they will be explicitly required.

I have taught my students that scholars of literature know books better than, or at least as well as, any other discipline. The history, terminology, and production processes of publications are our special shared heritage. That is one reason, I tell them, that in MLA style the terms that describe such processes can be tightly abbreviated: "ed.," "rev.," "trans.," "introd.," "pref."

As of the eighth edition, MLA’s stylemasters have apparently determined that literary scholars do not know books so well after all. The actions of literary, editorial, and artistic agency must now be spelled out at full length in plain text, as if all such activities were new and strange to us — translated by, edited by, performance by, directed by.

I have taught my students that papers in MLA style are formatted in specific ways because real scholars write manuscripts to submit them for peer review and editing, not to share them immediately with a final audience. That is why (through the seventh edition) the formatting of MLA papers has been based on publishing conventions for manuscripts rather than those for finished print works. It is to help editors, peers, and publishers add value to our writing, I tell them, that we double-space and left-justify, and sometimes even choose the easy-to-read fonts such as Courier that most previous editions of the MLA Handbook used for sample text.

The new guide makes no mention of peer review, typescript conventions, academic editing, or proofreading. Those terms do not even appear in the index.

For the first time, an MLA Handbook has been published containing no guidance about even the most basic formatting expected of an academic paper — its line spacing, margins, page numbering, headers, and text readability. On the last page of the eighth edition the authors indicate that these matters have been deliberately omitted because "advice on structuring and formatting" is now considered outdated.

For more than 20 years, I have taught my students that ethical scholars value accuracy, generously credit their sources, and meticulously preserve the chain of evidence. A proper citation should guide the reader unerringly to the full, exact source the writer actually used. That is one reason why, in the past, citations included the city of publication along with the name of a book publisher, and also why the specific date that a web source was accessed was listed as well as a URL (the texts of web pages can be silently changed by their publishers).

Yet in the eighth edition many such safeguards are removed or made optional in the name of "flexibility." Cities of publication are omitted, except when sometimes used in place of the names of publishers, and noting the date a web page was accessed is left up to the writer. Showing when and how you drew words and ideas from sources is represented less as a crucial requirement of scholarly integrity than as a matter of compositional elegance. The new official MLA style website assures readers: "There are innumerable ways to weave a quotation gracefully into your prose."

Some of those changes may seem trivial. To me they are not, obviously, but even if readers doubt the importance of some of those changes, please consider the ominous direction toward which they cumulatively trend.

The effect of each eighth-edition change is to move MLA style away from its original function as a set of codes designed for rigorous information exchange among scholars of language and literature — but still fully available to aspiring undergraduates.

The new goal: Establish MLA style as a set of undemanding guidelines crafted for maximum ease of use by students of almost any age and no particular discipline.

Even the writing in the eighth edition can seem intended to mirror student writing — and not the best student writing.

The first words of the Introduction are "In today’s world" — a cliché I tell first-year students never to use. Just three pages later, I stared in dismay to find a section on plagiarism beginning with another first-year favorite, the dictionary definition of the word ("Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines plagiarism as committing ‘literary theft’").

Can I still honestly teach my students that by learning MLA style they are acquiring a set of codes designed by and for a community of scholars whose shared work is to study the forms and genres of language, and especially the most sophisticated forms of language, those of the literary arts? If the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook is now the benchmark of discourse in my discipline, the answer appears to be no.

I will not even be able to tell students that this guide is a training-wheels version of the more sophisticated MLA Style Manual intended for scholars. If that were the case, all might still be well. But no: For now, at least, this is all we get. The MLA website announces that the scholarly MLA Style Manual is now discontinued and obsolete, and that the eighth edition Handbook is the "authoritative source for MLA style as of April 2016."

I did not fear for the future of English studies when our job market crashed, and crashed, and crashed again. I went to graduate school in the 1990s, so to me that seems like business as usual. I did not fear for my discipline when scholarly publishing tightened, or when our most cherished theoretical enterprises began to flounder. Useful theories will rise again as needed.

But if this MLA Handbook is now the authoritative source for the discourse and values of my scholarly discipline, there can be no question we have badly lost our way.

Dallas Liddle is an associate professor and chair of English at Augsburg College.