Thursday, January 17, 2008

Et Alia

Several days immersed in lines upon lines of works cited entries may cause you to wonder at some of the lesser noticed codes that rustle around at the ends of scholarly articles. A paradox of citation is that the works cited--a roster of references--flattens out the dimension of each reference and orders the list arbitrarily according to the alphabet while also downplaying a surprisingly uneven terrain of mismatched details more pocked than the face of the moon. This contradiction is forcing me into decisions I hadn't expected to be so difficult.

The et al. is one example. It allows the keeper of the works to abbreviate, to shorten a list of authors so that any source with more than three authors can be listed alphabetically by the last name of the lead author followed by et al. It is a note of inclusive omission. And I suppose it made greater sense in an era when works citeds, rife with formulaic peculiarity, were typed on a typewriter. The et al. conserves characters; it shortens the list of names, leaving off everyone but the primary author. It is no coincidence that et al. rhymes with economic al. So what is the big deal?

First, in the lists of citations I am combing through, the et al. is used with great inconsistency. Some citations include as many as eight authors, each listed by name. For another article with just four or five authors, the et al. resurfaces. Absent editorial consistency, the et al. becomes a fairly arbitrary designation.

Second, if et alia is introduced--designed--to shorten entries (and make the page spiffier), why has it done so little to shorten entries? I mean that there is no parallel convention for lopping off whatever follows a colon in a long-ish title, right? Many entries are long, despite the tremendous relief provided by the et al. for shortening the authors.

Third, it makes the systematic compilation of citation frequency much more difficult. Names are present in some cases; omitted in others. The terrain is uneven (to say nothing of the move that positions editors either in the primary position or the three-four slot). The lists are especially jagged when et alia are mixed in with APA Style, since APA uses initials rather than full first names. Clustering names becomes a complicated (and flawed) matching game.

Am I complaining? Perhaps. It's more a matter of realizing, while toiling through some 12,000 citations, that the model for MLA works cited entries is fraught with impracticality for doing what I am trying to do. It would be an improvement to use a distinctive character for name separations. Conventional formatting applies commas and either "and" or "with" between names of authors and periods are used after initials. But if I want to break apart a list of citations, separating the authors into one column and the titles (and everything after) into another column, there is no consistent character/space combination to achieve the break. As of today, I officially think of this as a weakness because it is a mess I am cleaning up manually, line by tiny line. If I keep pace in the face of such tedium and get this into ship shape by next Friday, I'm going to treat myself to an ice cream or something.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at January 17, 2008 10:10 PM to Methods