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  • Writer's pictureHannah

Understanding Citations

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Whether you're going back to school at a physical college campus, remotely, or through some hybrid version of education, you’re likely going to be writing research papers of some kind—and that means writing citations.

Creating bibliographies or reference lists isn’t just a chore that teachers require. Showing a clear paper trail for your inspiration helps protect you against accusations of plagiarism, points readers toward places to find more info, and demonstrates the credibility of your claims. That said, sometimes knowing how to cite sources is more challenging than writing your paper.

Before you even start writing, double-check what style guide your professor or teacher requires, thus saving you the headache of changing references at the last minute. I'll cover CMOS today, but your program may require MLA, APA, or even AP.

If you’re required to use Chicago (or you’re given the option, and like me, you love your CMOS), you’ll want to note which style of documentation is expected: notes and bibliography or the author-date system. Both can be found in CMOS, but they differ somewhat in their approach.

Notes and Bibliography

While writing, have you ever wanted to make a point that seemed important but was slightly off-topic? That’s the beauty of the notes and bibliography style of citations (CMOS 14). It allows for flexibility within in-text citations. Writers may offer extra information and explanation that can’t make it into the regular text or a simple bibliographical reference.

This citation style usually includes a bibliography at the end of the book or paper as well as footnotes or endnotes (or sometimes both). If there’s a bibliography, the numbered notes can be quite simple, with just the author’s last name, a shortened reference title, and a page number:

  1. Ford, Hotel, 44.

If there’s no bibliography, then the notes will include the entire citation. This can be helpful for readers who are interested in quickly seeing where a thought or idea came from, as they can immediately find the information on the page they’re reading. See the following example:

  1. Jamie Ford, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009), 44.

A bibliographical reference is pretty similar to the note citation, following this order: author’s name (last name, then first for alphabetizing), title of work, publication info, date. It looks like this:

  • Ford, Jamie. Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.

You may be asked to use notes and bibliography if you’re writing in the fields of literature, history, or the arts. Microsoft Word offers an easy way to add notes, making it simpler than ever to follow these guidelines.

Author-Date System

Have you ever flipped to the back of a book to discover the endnote you searched for wasn’t that important? Or have you found that a plethora of footnotes hampered your reading experience? Sometimes endnotes or footnotes can become more burdensome than helpful for the reader.

That’s one reason why we also have the author-date system, which is described in chapter 15 of CMOS. This system uses a reference list following the text, along with parenthetical citations within the document itself. Notes are sometimes used as well, but the actual citations won’t be found in them.

Parenthetical citations include the author’s last name and the publication date (and page numbers, if necessary). So, our book in the last examples would look like this:

  • (Ford 2009)

This form of citation provides minimal distraction for the reader and emphasizes the year that the information was published.

Similarly, the year is prioritized in the reference list, where entries include the author’s name, the date of the publication, the title, and then the publication info. See the following example:

  • Ford, Jamie. 2009. Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. New York: Ballantine Books.

You’ll notice it looks fairly similar to the bibliographical version described above, with date placement being the biggest difference. This style lends itself well to the sciences and social studies, which often rely on reports and studies for their references—making the date of publication quite important.


Of course, it’s best to have a copy of CMOS at your side when you’re writing. Even well-seasoned writers come across difficult reference situations, and having the standard to search through digitally or physically will help answer just about any question.

But even if CMOS has an abundance of citation answers, its creators argue that consistency is better than strict adherence to a style. Section 14.4 says that it’s often okay for the writer to stray from the standards, as long as the author’s choice can be defended and the publisher agrees with the decision. This often won’t work with journals, which have stricter guidelines, but if you’re working on a term paper, you should feel comfortable asking your professor for leeway in this area.

So, if a blank bibliography or reference list is looming in front of you, take a deep breath and remember that the goal isn’t perfection. Rather, your aim is to point your readers toward the thoughts that inspired your work. Keep this at the forefront of your mind, and you’ll be sure to honor your sources.

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