Why are there so many Citation Styles?

As a college student, I am obviously frequently asked to write papers, and do bibliographies. In doing this, I have been forced to use at least four different citation styles, and cannot come up with a feasible reason WHY there needs to be so many! So far I’ve used the MLA, tha APA, the Scientific Citation Format, and the Chicago Style! I’m sure that once I graduate, I shall have happened upon dozens more. Could someone please explain to me the reason to have a seperate citation style, and why it is so important to use one particular one at particular times?


I’m assuming it’s just because there’s no absolute, overriding reason to pick one and stick with it.

Kind of like human languages.

In graduate school every class required the use of APA style.

To make editors’s and students’s lives miserable of course!

There aren’t dozens more. You’ve yet to encounter the Vancouver style and a few more but rest assured there are not dozens. Sometimes it makes sense to use one rather than the other but why so many evolved is beyond me.

The main reason is that occasionally some disciplines decide to change their style for their own benefit. The one I am most familiar with, mathematics, used to footnote citations until about 1945. Typesetters hate footnotes and charge extra for it. I don’t know if that was the reason but about the end of WWII, a few papers began to use a style of using numbered references that were cited by a number in brackets: [1]. This was much less informative, but by 1950 it had taken over completely. Now a few people are experimenting with citations of the form [Author, date], which is very informative, even it does take up a bit more space. This is standard in linguistics and presumably some other disciplines. So the basic reason is that each discipline sets its own style and there is a lot of momentum against change.

I just read a book that uses endnotes for citations and the endnotes refer to a bibliography. So if you want to track down a citation, you first have to find the endnote (their numbers start over in each chapter, so you first have to figure out what chapter you are reading and then find the endnotes for that chapter) and then, after you finally have the name, you have to go to the bibliography to find the actual publication. I find this system awful; books should be written for the convenience of the–presumably many–readers, not the one writer.

I’d agree with that. Some lecturers are absolute Nazis about it.

I used the SIAM style in an assignment for a humanities subject (decades ago). The lecturer wrote a lengthy paragraph on my assignment about how she’d never, ever, in her entire life seen this style before, that it was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever seen, did I invent it myself, what’s wrong with me, etc.


BTW, the style that SIAM required at the time was something like:

  • In the text:


  • In the biblio:

[Smit62] SMITH, A. B., JONES, C. D.: “Goat felching in marine mammals”, AIGF Proc. Weird Shit, Vol. PWS-123, No. 3, June 1962, pp. 456-457.

I think it just depends on what kind of stuff you’re quoting and what would be the clearest and most efficient way to point someone to an anthology, a magazine, a work of fiction, a scientific journal, a record of a court case, etc.

In classes, march up to your professor first thing and ask what style you’re supposed to use, and learn it or keep reference books/sites on hand. If someone gets really shrill about the fact that you used a certain system, it’s probably either because that style is really wrong for the sort of thing you’re writing (and classes where you do writing are supposed to be teaching you how to write publishable stuff), or the prof isn’t familiar enough with that style to be able to mark it as correct even if it is.

Yes. We do.

WotNot: Then stay away from ladydisco’s pit thread. Espeically iampunha’s post.


Remember, any rules having to do with style are purely arbitrary. In addition, the general rule of thumb for style issues is that you can do what you like as long as you are consistent (and it doesn’t impair meaning).

It’s amusing that they really began to do away with footnote citation about the same time computer software was developing footnote algorithms to make them easy (but not perfect; footnoting can be difficult).

Usually a professor or publication will insist on a particular style for convenience’s sake. It’s awkward to switch gears for each paper, and, of course, you need to have a footnoting style consistent for every article in a publication.