Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Gaping holes in the new MLA Handbook

This morning I heard a hated phrase coming out of my mouth in class: "Because I said so." I don't want my students to carry me around throughout their lives to serve as the ultimate arbiter of where to place a comma or whether to italicize foreign words and phrases; far better for them to know how to use the MLA guide to look up answers to such questions.

Except the MLA guide--excuse me, the MLA Handbook, 8th edition--no longer covers these topics.

The new MLA has nothing whatever to say about the Oxford comma, the correct use of apostrophes, or how to format foreign words in a document, and if you want to know about margins, fonts, titles, and so on, you have to go to their online style center.

Now I like the new MLA style center (, and I appreciate the philosophy behind changes to MLA citation style even though it produces citations that look less like a sleek black tuxedo and more like the baggy old pants you wear to work in the garden. But what I lack is the ability to say "Because MLA says so" about certain topics.

So this morning when a student asked about the Oxford comma, we had to talk about context. "Intelligent people can disagree about comma placement," I told them, "so know your audience." Writing for publication? Look at the publication's house style sheet. Writing for a class? Ask the professor. Writing for my class? Put in the comma. Please. It pains me when it's missing.

Need to cite an authority? In the absence of a definitive statement in the MLA Handbook, just do it--because I said so.

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