Why We Cite

I’m sure you’ve all thought about this, and I know there are a lot of questions about how we cite, but I wanted to take a post to look at why citation is important, and why it matters to get it right. Working with citations can get frustrating, and so I think it’s important to keep an eye on why it is so important to begin with.

Citation has an ideological element (giving credit), a mechanical element (helping others to find relevant works) and a rhetorical element (showing you know your stuff). Each has an effect on why you want to get it right.

  1. Giving Credit.To give credit, you need to make sure that it is very clear where the ideas you are citing come from.  This means you need to distinguish very carefully between your thoughts and those of others.  That’s why it’s important to cite ideas you’ve paraphrased from sources, even if you rephrased them in your own words.  Note that this also means it’s important to keep track of where all these ideas came from—and which pages they were on.
    The correctness of the citation is important on this level–you haven’t really given credit if your citation doesn’t include enough information to clearly indicate who wrote this, where and when.
  2. Helping Your Readers.You also cite in order to help future scholars track down more information on the subject. When you use a source, I hope that you are checking it for more citations that you can use.  Others do the same, and the usefulness of your writing is improved by its links to other scholarship.  Citations are the means by which this is done.
    This means a good citation needs to have enough information for your readers to get their hands on the sources that you used.  Title and author aren’t enough for that; since articles in particular are organized in a specific system, you need to be able to point out their place in that system (year, volume, issue, etc.). In some cases, some of the information may seem redundant, but remember, there are many ways to access a journal article these days, and the redundancy can help in case some of the information is missing in a particular case.
  3. Showing Your Expertise. Finally, there is a rhetorical element to citation. Of course, it is very important to have your own ideas and not rely on simply stringing sources together, but you also want to show that you are familiar with the conversations around your particular topic.  Thus, including citations where necessary is persuasive to your reader because it shows that you are knowledgeable.

    Getting the rules for citations correct is similarly important.  Just like good spelling and grammar, correct citation practices help your credibility. This is where it counts to get all the picky rules right, even if they only concern whether to use a period or a comma and seem to have little meaning otherwise.  Many of the rules that appear picky at first do carry meaning—for instance, the difference between italics and quotation marks—but even those that don’t can make you look careless if you don’t use them correctly.

So that’s why.  We’ll talk more about how in class.

I was reading through the prospectus reflections, and I noticed that many of you said that you weren’t quite sure how broad the scope of your topic should be. It’s very likely that you have made some progress in this direction in the intervening weeks, but it’s also possible that I can offer some assistance in this regard.

Clearly, this question is too abstract to be answered directly. There is no absolute sign that I can point out that will prove that your topic is or is not appropriate to your paper. However, I can take you through part of the process through which you might make decisions about what you want to cover.

Starting with Work(s)

The easiest thing to do is usually to start with one or more works of literature that you will use as primary sources. In general, secondary sources about literary works are much easier to find than, say, secondary sources that discuss some theme or answer a more general question you have. So if you have a work or two in mind, it’s often useful to start there.

The first thing you need to know is how much information is available on the author or work of interest; obviously, only some of the books and articles about that work will be relevant to what you want to say, but it’s good to get a sense of how much is out there that might be relevant. In some cases, it’s obvious. If you are working on Shakespeare, you already know that there will be a huge amount of information to dig through before you find what you really want. Otherwise, you should look around to see what is out there.

The two best sources for this are the CUNY+ Catalog and MLA International Bibliography, for the very simple reason that both of them make it possible to look explicitly for secondary sources related to a primary source. One student voiced his frustration with JSTOR, which often brings up many irrelevant results which are difficult to sort.  This means that when you do a search in JSTOR, it doesn’t really tell you much about how much relevant material exists.

However, for CUNY+, you can do a subject search for the name of the author, and see how many books we have on his or her work.  With MLA, you can be even more direct and search for information on the specific work in question. In many cases, this is also a good strategy for locating good articles, but the first thing you want to do is think about the number of results that you get.

If you get a lot of results, you can easily write about a more specific subject. If there is less about your author, writing with a broader scope may be easier than writing about something very specific.  That doesn’t mean you can’t write about very specific aspects of less-studied works—only that it is more difficult, and you may need to use some sources that may not deal explicitly with the work of interest.

Starting with Ideas

If you’re starting with a broad theme, rather than a particular author or work, you have a more difficult task. If you already have some ideas about which authors best embody the theme that interests you, you may want to start by searching for information about those works.

It also depends on what sorts of ideas you are considering. Let me use a couple examples, both of which are too broad for a real paper, but which I think are illustrative.

If you are interested in, for instance, the category of Asian American literature (rather than particular works which might be considered part of Asian American literature) as part of your topic, you can do a search of that sort in the catalog. You’ll notice that while this is too broad to actually serve as a topic for a paper, there are books about it that you can use, and in fact it’s often useful to search the catalog for topics that are more broad than the ones that you are actually writing about.  In any case, once you’ve found books about a topic of this sort, you can look to see which works are most often discussed in that context.

If, on the other hand, you are discussing a theme, like dishonesty in twentieth century American literature, that’s a little more difficult. There are various “in literature” subject headings that can often help you to search the catalog for literary themes, but the one you want doesn’t always exist.  JSTOR is not much help either in this regard. A search like this would likely turn up as much material on psychology as on literature.  MLA is an option, but not a very reliable one.  In a few cases, Literature Criticism online may be helpful, since they do have some articles based on themes, but it’s hard to predict before you search which ones they will have.

Nailing down a topic

The question of how certain you should be about exactly what you want to write is very similar to the question of how specific your topic should be—it’s quite difficult to answer in the abstract.

What you really want is to have enough ideas to generate a good search, but not to be so strict about your idea that you cannot adapt to what you find in your research.

Early in a search, you should try to generate the search terms, synonyms and related words for your search. Use your prospectus to help you come up with these terms, and at this point in your research, you may even want to consider including things that are somewhat tangential.  For instance, if you are interested in gender, you may want to consider using search terms like “man” or “masculinity” if it makes any sense for the paper you are writing. This will change the results, and in some cases you may begin finding articles that are a little different from what you were writing about.

Most searches will generate some results that are definitely not interesting, some that are certainly or probably interesting, and some that might be.  If you are getting too many articles that fall in the first or third categories, take a look at the ones that might be. Read the subject terms and the first paragraphs to see how close they are to your interests; you may end up shifting your topic slightly if you find something interesting.  That doesn’t mean you should abandon your topic immediately if you don’t see things that are interesting on your first pass, but you should be open to seeing how other people’s research may fit into it.  All this is part of the research process. It’s difficult to know exactly what you are looking for until you find it.

(And yes.. this requires multiple searches.  Don’t be surprised or frustrated if you need to search several times before you start finding what you really want.)

Start with Part I!  You need to look at the OED first. But as the end of that post notes (and so does your assignment), you’ll need more sources.

So, what other sources can you use? You have a few options…

Other Dictionaries

The library has lots of dictionaries, and you may notice that they don’t all have exactly the same definition for the same word.  They’re all listed in the catalog, of course; you can find them by doing a Subject Begins With search for English—Dictionaries—Dictionaries.

However, since you are looking at several dictionaries, you may find it easier to simply go to the appropriate part of the library and browse. Dictionaries are mostly on the third floor, around the call number PE 1628. You may want to consider dictionaries from different time periods or different parts of the world and see whether you can find any interesting differences.

We also have a collection of dictionaries online known as Oxford Reference Online Premium, but it doesn’t always have much information in it. Still, it’s worth a look.

Google NGrams

Okay, this is a fun toy.  The back story is that when Google was scanning library books for their Google Books project, they realized they could use this data to provide quantitative analysis of language use.  That is, you search Google Books for individual words in order to see how often they have been used over time, and you can compare words to each other, as well.

For instance, with my example of “prattle,” I could just put in the word that interests me and see that while it was quite common in 1800, its use has declined steadily over time. So, if I see it in a work from 2000, I know that the author is intentionally choosing an unusual word.

Alternatively, I can put in another word, like “babble,” which is quite common now, and compare the uses over time.  One has risen while another has fallen.  I can also do interesting things with alternate forms of a word by doing searches for words like “prattling” or even “prate” and “prating.”

There is also an option to look at British English or American English, which limits your search to just the books that were published in Great Britain or the United States, respectively. Or, you could limit to particular time periods to see the increase and decrease of usage from a closer perspective.

Numeric value gives you a little information, but what you really want to know is context. There’s a little of that available here, too; if you click on the date ranges below the graph, you can see snippets from books published in these different time periods.

More Context!

Of course, the only way to really understand how a word was used at a particular period in history is to look at uses in that period.

Above, I’ve written a little about how you can use NGrams to find usages.  However, let’s not forget about the usage examples you saw in the OED. There, too, you get the snippets; in the case of a really interesting word, you may want to look up the source.

Of course, you may be especially interested in the use of your keyword in a particular work of literature. The works you’ve read in class and out of it may certainly help you establish a context for the word (as well as the reverse!).

You might even consider using something like a concordance to identify how a word is used in a particular work or works. The problem with the Hyper-Concordance (linked above) is, of course, that you need to search one work at a time, but unlike other resources it can help you to compare all the uses of a word in a work.   There are other concordances, both on the web and in the library; try searching the catalog for the author of interest along with the word “concordances” for the ones we have.  I’m sure you can devise a strategy for finding the ones on the web.

Very soon, you will be researching the history of a word and presenting on it to the class.  Of course, there are many ways you might go about this, but here’s how I would do it…

I’ll use the word “prattle” as an example throughout.

Now, you should definitely start with the Oxford English Dictionary.   Not only is it the most comprehensive dictionary of the English language, it also provides extensive background information about both etymology and historical usage.  It’s fairly simple to search for a word; in this case, when I search, I come up with both the noun and the verb.OED Search Results page showing the definition for "prattle"

As you can see, the earliest date of use is listed next to each one. Notice that there are some links above to help you find out how “prattle” is used in other definitions in the OED; it may be worthwhile or at least fun to explore these and find out which words are most closely associated with it.   For now, though, I’ll click through to one of the definitions—the second one, for the verb.

As you’ll notice, there’s a lot of information here. I’ve clicked on “Full Entry” because I want to see the usage history of the word.

The definition of "prattle" in the Oxford English Dictionary


The etymology is interesting; that “prattle” is related to words meaning “mutter” and “chatter” helps us to place it. However, for the purposes of this assignment, it’s probably more interesting to look at the usage history. The OED tries to include the earliest documented use of each word (that’s the example from 1500, above), and then to provide representative examples showing how the usage (and hence, the meaning) of the word has changed over time. Only a couple examples are visible here—there are more below, but they didn’t fit in the screenshot.

You may also want to consider the ideology expressed in the definition itself. From the definition included here, it seems that “prattle” is associated with gossip, childishness and lack of consequence. What does this tell you about the uses to which the word may be put? You’ll probably want to address this in your presentation.

There’s also a “Thesaurus” link next to the definition. This will give you the classification of the word in the Oxford Historical Thesaurus, which has been recently integrated with the OED.  This is a way to find synonyms, but you may also find it useful to look at the way that these words are organized by the thesaurus. It tells you something about the way that the word is regarded in general and the way the OED “thinks” in particular.

The portion of the Historical Thesaurus associated with "prattle."

The bold words at the top indicate a hierarchical “tree.” “The Mind” is the largest category; within that, language is one possible category, along with “Emotion or feeling,” “The will,” “Refusal or denial” and so on.  If you’d like a better sense of these categories, click on “Historical Thesaurus” in the top right of the screen and explore around a bit. It’s a very nineteenth-century way of thinking about language, but to see these categories can make the associations of the words a little bit clearer.

In case you want even more information, look to the right of the page from the definition screen. The OED also includes a list of the words before and after your word in the dictionary, and it’s often worthwhile to check this for words related to the one of interest. The words near “prattle” look like this:

A list of words in the OED, showing where "prattle" falls alphabetically

Prattle-basket? Prattle-box? Interesting.

Definition entries will also often include set phrases that include the word of interest, although “prattle” doesn’t.

The OED is great; in fact, it’s essential. You won’t want to rely on it exclusively, though, since it has its own quirks and biases (and perhaps you’ve seen some of them in this post already!).  My next post will be about the other resources that you may want to consider using.

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I’m Nancy Foasberg, the subject librarian for English, and I hope some of you have met me before!

I’ll be working closely with this class, providing help as you become familiar with the conversations surrounding the works and ideas that you want to write about.  If you already  have questions–please ask them!

As for the title of this blog, it comes from the Historical Thesaurus that is now integrated with the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).  It’s available from the tan box that you’ll see when you first open up the OED, and it allows you to look at words by their senses and find synonyms that match.

It’s a lot of fun, and it may be useful when you are doing your keyword presentation–but it’s also one way of finding a blog title, for those of you who may be casting around for the perfect title.

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