Citation minutiae: one persnickety editor’s torment

On a snowy Poughkeepsie night many moons ago, I curled up on a cozy, crumb-caked couch cushion in the Jewett MPR, feeling pretty darn pleased with myself. After months of hanging my coat and backpack on those preschool hooks in the corner of Special Collections, hoarding photos of pages from Vassar’s 1864 to 1874 handbooks on my phone, waiting for office hours in lines that overflowed into Swift 101 and re-rereading “A Few Matters of Form and Style, compiled by James Merrell,” I had just completed my term paper for History 160. There might have been moderate asthenopia from painstakingly translating the Vassar Lady Principal’s tiny, faded, scrunched, 19th-century longhand into modern English, but there would be no all-nighter. Now I just had to review my footnotes.

And then, my evening began to implode. With 10 works cited, 50 quotes and 59 footnotes, there seemed to be inexhaustible opportunities for error which, when viewed  as a whole by the meticulous eye of a professor, had the potential to drop my grade down from an A to an A-, an A- to a B+, a B- to a C+…

Worse yet, what if I forgot a couple of footnotes or neglected a bibliographical citation altogether? What if I included just one “t” in Mary Harriott Norris’s name, or failed to mention that one of the quotes on page nine was the words of Sarah Josepha Hale, as quoted in Linner, “Vassar: The Remarkable Growth of a Man and His College, 1855-1865,” 133., as opposed to coming from the mouth of Linner, “Vassar: The Remarkable Growth of a Man and His College, 1855-1865,” 133?1 Then I might find myself testifying before the Academic Panel, and not only about the Hale-Linner debacle, but also to assure the Panel that my failure to include “CT” after “New Haven” in listing the publisher for Barbara Miller Solomon’s “In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America” resulted not from a feeble attempt to prevent readers from finding the original text, but instead from the assumption that I did not have to clarify the state when naming a major city.2 

This was not some isolated finals week meltdown. I am a detail-oriented, nitpicky, correct-your-text-message-grammar perfectionist, and citations create quite a kerfuffle. Being my persnickety self, I likewise obsess over my papers’ actual contents, but somehow the citations are inevitably my emotional undoing, and the object of an outsized portion of my paper-crafting efforts.

I once sat hunched over a round, red table in the chilly Main basement from 1:45 p.m. to 4:55 p.m. (the paper was due at 5), feverishly cross-checking my citations with the Chicago Manual of Style, Purdue Online writing lab, my own former papers and sample papers, both those of strangers and students of previous years. 

There was much to examine! For example, did the ibids have periods and then commas before the page numbers? Did I forget a period after “Ibid” in footnote 32? If I forgot a period there, who’s to say I didn’t forget a period after “ed.”? Certainly not the Purdue OWL (“Whooo whooo forgot her period?”). In my works cited, did I remember to list the sources in alphabetical order by last name of author, even though the first time an author is introduced in the footnotes, the footnote begins with the first name of the author? Were the footnote numbers at the very end of sentences, after the punctuation? Did my abbreviated footnote citations include author last name, title, page number, period and, in the event that I referenced two sources in one sentence, continue with a semicolon and another citation? Did I use the proper footnote form for letters from Special Collections? (From/To, Date, Folder #, Box #, File Name, Special Collections, Vassar College, p. #.) How about for other random Special Collections documents? Books and websites? Photographs and court cases? Did I at any point confuse Chicago Style with, say, MLA or APA?

As I sat shivering (why is that basement always so cold?), I proceeded to confirm that each quotation, paraphrase and footnote citation indeed corresponded with the information on the page listed. It turned out that Leon Stein’s “The Triangle Fire” was originally published in 1962, but the edition I had was published in 2001.3 Plus, I credited William L. Riordon with authoring “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” but I was quoting the introduction, which was authored by Terrence J. McDonald. I left out the word “the” in a couple of quotes (could that land me before the Panel?!) and, in one of my quotes, I forgot to do that fancy period, space, ellipses maneuver to signify that the latter portion of my quote was from a new sentence. Most alarming of all, I could not find the quote that I stated was on page 29 anywhere on page 29, which resulted in my frantically flipping through the pages in a desperate attempt to locate the elusive quote just an hour before the paper was due.4

I sprinted to drop off my paper with a throbbing head and blurring vision, and I have not since descended the spiral staircase to Main basement, for fear that it will spawn memories of red-ink-marred footnotes and crinkly pages stained with sweat from my frenzied hunt for the quote allegedly located on page 29. But at least the first comment the professor wrote on my paper was “Excellent footnote form, I must say!”5 

Furthermore, it would appear that one can avert any potential citation catastrophe simply by referring to the writing guide attached to the syllabus, the online style guide for that professor’s preferred citation style, sample papers or the Vassar library website. But whenever I examine my sources with a fine-toothed cursor, I inevitably find that at least a couple have quirks that the aforementioned sources fail to address. So then I feel compelled to march into office hours bearing a detailed list of these anomalies. I present to you an abbreviated version of one such list, which I presented to a professor by email last semester:

  1. “The Heart of Understanding” lists two publishers (Parallax Press and Unified Buddhist Church, Inc.) and two Copyright dates (1988 and 2009). Is there a certain publisher/date that I should use? 
  2. “Buddhist Scriptures” does not list the city/state in which it was published. Do I need to include this? 
  3. Should I cite the specific stories that I used from the scriptures in the bibliography and the footnotes, or should I just cite the work as a whole and not list a specific author (as I did above)?6 

Of course, now I’m obsessing over how to properly cite my own email. The quote is over 5 lines, so it’s a block quote, and therefore I should indent it .5 inches instead of placing it in quotations, but it’s difficult to maneuver the ruler to precisely .5 inches using InDesign (newspaper software). In addition, do I need to add a works cited page for this one source? Furthermore, the footnote itself seems awfully sparse. Should I have included the subject of the email as well? Different Chicago Manual of Style sites offer different answers. Should I have cited those cites—whoops, sites? Should I even be using the Chicago Manual of Style, or should I be using MLA format? Or AP style for journalism? Or should I be citing at all because I’m quoting myself…? And on it goes.


1  Of course in my actual paper, I italicized the title as opposed to putting it in quotes. However, in journalistic writing, book titles are placed in quotes and not italicized.

2 It turns out that one indeed only needs to reference the city, as opposed to the city and the state in this instance, but in the grip of a 1 to 2:30 a.m. stretch of sleep deprivation, I experienced a most crippling bout of paranoia.

3 Once again, in the actual paper, I of course italicized the title as opposed to placing it in quotes. 

4 There ought to be a search and find feature in books like there is on computers. I haven’t the faintest idea as to how this might be possible, but there still ought to be one.

5 This initially made me want to gently cut along the little black line separating my citations from the paper, mount them on some resume paper, frame it and hang my creation above my bed. Then I realized that I should probably be gunning for positive feedback regarding actual research and analytical skills as opposed to my ability to accurately cite the publisher of “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall” by italicizing the “of” in “Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press.”

6 Leah Cates, email message to Professor Michael Walsh, March 10, 2017.

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