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Reviewed by:
  • The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing
  • James M. Clawson
Modern Language Association of America. 2008. The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association. $32.50 hc. xxiv + 336 pp.

There are a few possible ways to evaluate a resource like the new edition of the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. To begin with, one might compare it to other manuals like the Chicago Manual of Style, now in its fifteenth edition, or to the MLA’s own Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, now in its sixth (soon seventh). Compared to the former—three times the size and five times the edition—the MLA Manual is a mere brochure, missing out on the opportunity to school its readers in the finer points of word usage, the presentation of mathematical expressions, and the differences between perfect, notch, and burst binding. Compared to the latter, which caters to undergraduate students, the Manual offers a welcome reprieve from guidance on note-taking, outlining, and drafting. Where the Manual shines is in the surfeit of specificity it offers to its principle audience: advanced writers and researchers of literatures and languages. To these postgraduates, faculty members, and professionals, the Manual’s chapters on documentation are the gold standard; as such, revisions are best compared against previous versions. In this respect, the new edition fares well, offering impressive (and [End Page 234] needed) updates to its content and style definition. More guardedly, changes to the Manual’s usability and presentation will confound the user, while referencing revisions may worry the college teacher. In all, the third edition is a sound update to this Bible of the humanities.

The inside dust flap lists changes to this edition, including a revision of the documentation style and simpler treatment for electronic sources (of which more later), updates to legal matters, a new foreword by Donna C. Stanton, and a new preface by David G. Nicholls. Stanton’s discerning essay on style—channeling (while spoiling the ending to) Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red—establishes the importance of revision to such a standardized form. Nevertheless, for all its strengths, Stanton’s essay really should complement, rather than replace, Herbert Lindenberger’s excellent foreword from the previous edition; undergraduate instructors will want to keep Lindenberger’s foreword at hand, as it presents an explanation of style more suitable for students. Nicholls’ preface, on the other hand, is a welcome replacement to the terse acknowledgements of the last edition and offers insight into the process behind some of the additions and changes. The significant amendments to the chapter on legal issues in publishing, for example, were overseen by two authorities. The Committee on MLA Style based other changes more on recognition of changing trends, including italics in place of underlining and french (single) spacing after final punctuation marks.

And yet, whether these changes depend on de facto or de jure standards is another issue altogether. Prior to 2008, MLA style was presented in “The MLA Style Sheet” or in volumes attributed to individuals: William Riley Parker in 1951; Walter S. Achtert and Joseph Gibaldi in 1985; Joseph Gibaldi in 1998. The third edition differs by being published as a work of corporate authorship, with its updated recommendations presented as products of consensus. Stanton notes in her foreword that stylistic concerns of the Manual are limited to spelling, punctuation, and presentation (alongside documentation). Nevertheless, her willingness to cite the definition of “Manual” as the compilation of rules needed for mastery of a field suggests the role of the corporate author is consummate: its manual will always be complicit in defining the disciplinary ‘norms’ it claims to chronicle. At worst, then, updates to such a manual present readers with the uncomfortable discipline of a nor-mativizing system; at best, they reflect a community with shared and evolving traditions and common goals. Actuality probably lies somewhere between these two poles.

In any event, changes in punctuation quail in importance beside the necessarily systematic documentation style that has come to signify the meaning of “MLA style.” The previous edition of the Manual, published in 1998, gave only passing mention...


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