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Greene, Catharine Littlefield (1755–1814)

Greene, Catharine Littlefield (1755–1814)

Renowned participant in the political society of Revolutionary America who, with Eli Whitney and Phineas Miller, invented the cotton gin. Name variations: Katherine or Catherine, and Caty (KAY-tee). Born Catharine Littlefield, possibly with "Ray" as a middle name, on December 17, 1755, on Block Island, off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island; died on Cumberland Island, Georgia, on September 2, 1814; daughter of John Littlefield (a landowner and deputy of the General Assembly) and Phebe (Ray) Littlefield; tutored sporadically from age 10 to 18; mostly selftaught through reading; learned French as a young woman; married Nathanael Greene (later a leading general in the Revolutionary army), on July 20, 1774 (died 1786); married Phineas Miller, in 1796 (died 1803); children: (first marriage) George Washington Greene (1776–1793); Martha Greene (Patty, b. 1777); Cornelia Lott Green (b. 1778); Nathanael Ray Greene (b. 1780); Louisa Catharine Greene (b. 1784); Catharine Greene (1785–1785).

Left home at age ten to live with Greenes of East Greenwich, Rhode Island (1764); married Nathanael Greene, set up housekeeping in Coventry (1774); began a series of journeys from Coventry to join husband in the Continental Army (1775), to Jamaica Plain (1775), to Cambridge, Massachusetts (1775), to New York City (1776), to Fort Lee, New Jersey (1777), to Valley Forge (1778), to Middlebrook, New Jersey (1778), to Morristown and Philadelphia (1779), to Charlestown, South Carolina (1781), to Philadelphia (1783); returned home with husband to Coventry (1783); hired Phineas Miller as tutor, family moved to Mulberry Grove, Georgia (1785); premature baby born and died (1786); filed a claim of indemnity on husband's behalf versus Federal government (1787); granted plea by Congress with cash award (1792); Eli Whitney arrived at Mulberry Grove (1792); with Whitney and Miller, invented the cotton gin (1793); involved in Yazoo Land Fraud (1795); moved to Cumberland Island after Mulberry Grove auctioned (1800); patent rights of gin sold to South Carolina legislature (1802).

In her own time, Catharine Littlefield Greene became famous, with good reason, in her role as the wife of a famous man, Nathanael Greene, a leading general in the American Revolution. Somewhat ironically, however, her contribution to an invention made a decade after the end of that war was to have far greater impact in shaping the future of the country that the revolution gave birth to. In conventional history books, it is the young Eli Whitney who is usually given sole credit for the invention of the cotton gin. If the name of Catharine Greene appears at all in this connection, it is usually as nothing more than a sexually beguiling social butterfly. But in 1793, her contribution to this basically simple, but revolutionary, machine was to provide the impetus for bringing it into being. She also made effective contributions, along with Whitney and Phineas Miller, to its design, actions that inadvertently helped to precipitate the paradox of slave power as the underpinning of prosperity in the South, which became the torment of the country throughout the next century. But if Caty Greene deserves her place in the annals of American inventors, the fullness of her life also bears examination for what it reveals about the experience of women at the intersection of politics and society in the earliest years of America as a nation.

Born on December 17, 1755, in New Shoreham, on Block Island, 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast, Catharine Littlefield has been identified as the second or third child of Phebe Ray Littlefield and John Littlefield. Her parents came from two old island families; John was landed gentry and served as deputy of the general assembly, and Phebe Ray was a direct descendant of Roger Williams. When Phebe died, in May 1761, at age 28, she left her husband with five young children.

Catharine, called "Caty," enjoyed childhood in an almost idyllic setting. Block Island had only 50 white families and a small number of friendly Native Americans and free blacks. Without schools, markets or roads, and with only one public gathering place, it allowed her to roam free, walking or riding the entire island from a young age.

Shortly after her mother's death, ten-yearold Caty was sent to live in Greenwich, Rhode Island, with her mother's sister, for whom she had been named. A beautiful, captivating woman, Catherine Ray won her place in history as an object of Benjamin Franklin's ardent wooing, though he was much older and married toDeborah Read at the time. His chagrined letters suggest she did not capitulate entirely—he complained of her "virgin innocence"—but they corresponded for years and even exchanged family visits. By the time Caty came to live with her, Catharine Ray was married to William Greene, a fervent patriot and later a governor of Rhode Island.

In the Greenes' home, Caty began to study with tutors, who were impressed by her intelligence. The household, meanwhile, was becoming a center for pre-revolutionary political activity, where Caty, at age 18, met a distant relative, Nathanael Greene. The fourth son of a prosperous Rhode Island Quaker minister and farmer who owned grist mills and forges, Nathanael was a sophisticated young man of 30 who had begun to question his family's faith. His favorite pastime was dancing, which had widened the rift, and his enrollment in a local militia, the Kentish guards, had finally caused his expulsion from the pacifist church. After the death of his father, Nathanael and his brothers invested some of their inheritance in merchant ships. At 28, he had built a house in nearby Coventry, allowing frequent visits to the Greene home for both political and personal reasons.

Family legends relate that Nathanael met Caty while recovering from a broken romance with her cousin, Anna Ward , whom she resembled. True or not, Catharine did not have to rely on family resemblance to enchant the young man from Coventry. She is described as having black hair, violet or gray eyes, clear-cut features and a transparent complexion, and possessed a "power of fascination" that observers noted as "absolutely irresistible," even as a young woman.

On July 20, 1774, Catharine and Nathanael were married in the home of her aunt and uncle, and they set up housekeeping in Coventry. From the start, the young couple's life was played out against the dramatic backdrop of the American crisis. During their courtship, Nathanael had clashed with British authorities over the burning of a royal schooner, the Gaspee, and on April 19, 1775, a knock on the newlyweds' door caused Nathanael to march off with his regiment to the battles at Lexington and Concord. By the time these troops reached Massachusetts, the British had retreated, but the couple knew that war had come. Shortly afterward, Nathanael left for military duty as a private but, in an army badly in need of officers, was soon given the post of brigadier general.

Nathanael was stationed with the rest of the provincial brigades in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts, when Caty discovered she was with child. To the astonishment of her relatives, she soon left to join Nathanael at his headquarters, establishing a pattern that was to characterize their marriage. During the eight years of the war, she would remain with her husband whenever she could, often traveling while pregnant, with or without her children. As military or reproductive developments dictated, she would return to the home of her husband's family or to Coventry, then quit the household as soon as circumstances permitted a return to camp life, often leaving behind one or more of the children.

Awaiting the birth of her first child, she returned to Coventry and spent some months improving herself with the help of her husband's library of 300 books, while also carrying out the duties of a general's wife by visiting the families of recently killed soldiers. Growing bored in the late stages of her confinement, she returned to her husband's camp at Cambridge and helped to nurse soldiers through a smallpox epidemic, safe from the disease because of her earlier inoculation. There she began a lifelong friendship with Martha Washington , known as "Lady Washington." In the command echelon, the atmosphere of the camp was that of an extended family, and Caty shone there, as a skilled card player, a wonderful dancer, not above indulging in flirting and risqué humor, charming to all the officers and a favorite, in particular, of George Washington.

[My mother had] the most remarkable combination of intellectual power and physical beauty I have personally encountered in womanhood.

—Cornelia Greene

Observers of the time describe Caty Greene as possessing a great deal of "charm"; undoubtedly, a large measure of her attractiveness lay in her intelligence. According to Elizabeth Ellet , a 19th-century writer who interviewed friends of the young general's wife, Catharine possessed "the capacity for quick perception and the faculty of comprehending a subject with surprising readiness." An excellent listener and observer, she once astonished a group by conversing intelligently on botany after merely turning over the pages of a book. Other comments about her gifts—a retentive memory, an ability to apply what she read to practical matters, fluent speech, and a lively imagination—all suggest a formidable mind. "When to all these gifts was added the charm of rare beauty," Ellet concluded, "it cannot excite wonder that the possessor of such attractions should fascinate all who approached her."

These endowments are all the more remarkable given that the young Catharine was not welleducated—a lack she felt keenly, according to her husband's letters. Unfortunately, historians have only his side of the exchange since Caty burned her correspondence, perhaps because it was too revelatory, or perhaps because she was ashamed of her spelling. She wished to be regarded as a cultivated lady and felt insecure with some officers' wives. Nathanael's letters, though affectionate and indulgent, could also be scolding and full of admonitions about her personal deportment. When advising her to write to Lucy Knox , another general's wife, he cautioned her about her spelling. "You are defective in this matter, my love," he wrote, "a little attention will soon correct it.… [P]eople are often laughed at for not spelling well but never for not writing well."

Some observers pictured Caty as superficial and frivolous, if not downright promiscuous. Her ability to excite deep feelings in men has caused more romantic biographers to depict her as a vamp or mere flirt, a characterization belied by the lifelong friendships she enjoyed with several admirers. From this period of her life onward, rumors surrounded her, and Lady Washington aside, she apparently had few female friends. She obviously preferred the company of men, and evidence exists that when some of the young military men fell in love with her, she did not discourage their attentions. Her husband appears to have taken pride in her power to attract other men, and the passionate and tender affirmations of his correspondence with her—"My heart pants for you" and "I hope to meet you again in the pleasure of Wedlocke"—seem more than merely conventional. On the other hand, he often mentioned other women in a way that was calculated to make her jealous.

Historians must tread cautiously in assessing the reactions of the day to her behavior. Her laughter upon learning that Lady Washington had, in all innocence, named a tomcat after Alexander Hamilton may have signaled lightness of character to some late 18th-century folk, but to a modern scholar it may suggest a sense of humor and quick mind. Also, such talk could be highly gendered. Part of the gossipers' indictments named her indifference to religion, which she shared with her husband. An excommunicated Quaker, Nathanael was seldom seen at services, but when he missed a sermon during Caty's visits, she took the blame. Apparently sexual gossip was the cause of a lifelong rift that developed between Caty and her Aunt Catharine Ray, who was horrified by reports of her niece's behavior.

Catharine has also had her defenders. Those who believe the gossip cite letters from her husband reminding her that modesty and delicacy were the foundation of all female charms, and to a letter from Caty herself, relating a proposition by a French officer. But a Georgia politician, Isaac Briggs, tracked down a rumor that Nathanael, motivated by her infidelity, had petitioned for divorce, only to discover it "was all a lie." Briggs attributed the talk to envy and her free and direct manner. "She has an infinite fund of vivacity, the world calls it levity," hazarded Briggs. "She possesses an unbounded benevolence… the world calls it imprudence." Perhaps the final say belongs to Catharine, who admitted that she had "passions and propensities," and "if she had any virtue 'tis in resisting and keeping them within bounds," and to her husband, who wrote, "Altho I have been absent from you I have not been inconstant in love, unfaithful to my vows or unjust to your bed. [I consider] myself equally secure in your affections and fidelity."

It is not clear whether Caty's first child, George Washington Greene, born in February 1776, was delivered in camp or in Rhode Island. In late spring, she left her new son with Nathanael's family to rejoin her husband, then encamped in the Battery section of Manhattan, where she socialized with Lucy Knox and others. During this time, she made a good friend of Captain Alexander Hamilton and heard the Declaration of Independence read on the green before assorted civilians and the Continental troops. As the British pressed closer, she returned to Coventry, and soon discovered she was pregnant again. Conditions of war now prevented her traveling, and she lived for months in a state of fear, longing to join her husband, and worried about his safety, as well as her own. Ensconced in nearby Newport, the British undoubtedly considered the home of a leading Continental Army general an attractive target.

Finally, astonishing news arrived from New Jersey: General Washington, with Nathanael by his side, had crossed the Delaware River at McKonkee's Ferry and defeated a sleeping Hessian force at Trenton. In January, the Continental Army routed the last of the redcoats from Princeton before settling down for the rest of the winter in Morristown.

In March 1777, Caty gave birth to a girl Martha Greene , whom she named after Martha Washington. In February of the following year, she left her babies to join her husband at Valley Forge, in Pennsylvania. This winter of encampment has become famous as the low point in the fortunes of the revolutionary force, when morale had plunged, and cold, hungry soldiers scavenged the countryside to survive while officers felt forced to imposed severe penalties on their ragged troops to keep military discipline. It was against this background that Catharine Greene earned lasting fame, and the gratitude of many, including George Washington. Statements by Washington and others have led historians to credit her with holding the despairing officers' corps together, tipping the balance toward survival in a situation on the verge of disintegration. Making close friends that winter among the revolutionary notables, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Casimir Pulaski, Baron von Steuben, Tadeuscz Kosciusko and especially "Mad Anthony" Wayne, she undoubtedly raised the spirits of the officers with her vivacity. Pierre Duponceau, a 17-year-old aide that winter, recalled her as a "handsome, elegant and accomplished woman [who] spoke the French language and was well versed in French literature," a bright spot "in the middle of our distress."

Only recently have historians begun to uncover the underlying assumptions behind the judgment that women's presences affected the outcome at Valley Forge. They focus on a school of thought that profoundly influenced the revolutionary generation—the Scottish Common Sense School, whose major proponents included David Hume and Adam Smith. These thinkers insisted that while men made the laws that controlled behavior, women made manners which shaped the individual and thus insured a virtuous citizen for the new republic. Though the women lacked legal equality with the men, their social equality was therefore as important as any political power, because their activities pushed forward the progress of civilization. To Washington and others, these ideas became crucial as they believed that the future of the young republic lay in the virtue of its citizenry. When Nathanael wrote to Caty of the "sweet influence of female charms" as an "an antidote to wicked men and their ambitions," he was not merely commenting on a woman's decorative or recreational function, but on her political and social duty.

Caty conceived at Valley Forge and gave birth to a girl, Cornelia Lott Greene , on September 23, 1778, in Coventry. (Though a sickly baby, this child was to outlive all her family and leave the clearest embodiment of her mother's essence in her writings.) That same year, at General Washington's express request, Caty met the army at their encampment at Middlebrook, New Jersey, taking all of her children. On the last day of January 1780, Nathanael Ray was born in Morristown, and the crude gifts made for him by the soldiers touched Catharine's heart.

Catharine and her family were back in Rhode Island when troubles arose concerning Nathanael's promotion to quartermaster. Accused of extravagant spending and incurring debt, Nathanael was outraged and tried to resign. Washington would not hear of it and appointed him instead to command the Southern Army. Forced to content herself with the company of French soldiers at Newport, Caty aroused further whispers and gossip.

In December 1781, six weeks after news of the Yorktown surrender had reached Rhode Island, Caty set off for South Carolina, accompanied only by her six-year-old son, George. She left the boy in Philadelphia with the Washingtons, who persuaded her it was time for him to be sent to school. Upon arriving at her husband's headquarters, she discovered that he had acquired landholdings in Georgia, but it soon became clear that the Greenes could not expect a leisurely postwar life. Nathanael was found responsible for debts he had contracted on behalf of the U.S. government, and only the land grants stood between the growing family and utter ruin.

For the next several years, Caty and Nathanael traveled between Newport and Georgia. In March 1784, Louisa Catharine Greene was born; the following year, another girl was born but lived only a short time, and the death left Caty bereft and depressed. The following autumn, as the family prepared to move to Georgia, she discovered she was pregnant again and suffered a nervous collapse. To help with the children, Nathanael hired Phineas Miller, a 21-year-old graduate of Yale, as a tutor. Before the entourage sailed, Caty and Phineas had become fast friends.

The Greene family settled into their plantation at Mulberry Grove, Georgia, and entered into the local social life. But any contentment was to be short-lived. In the spring of 1786, a pregnant Caty fell, injuring her ankle and hip, and brought on the premature birth of another child who died. In June, after a long afternoon in the sun, Nathanael complained of a headache, the pain quickly worsened, and on June 19th he suddenly died, at the age of 44.

At age 32, Catharine Greene was a widow with five children, who had lived no more than a year or so with her husband uninterrupted. But after her initial confusion and despair, she began to adjust, and then to thrive. Having handled much responsibility during the war, she was now legally and financially her own agent. Along with Phineas Miller, she supervised the plantation, where slaves were producing bumper crops of rice and corn; she also prepared a claim of indemnity against the federal government on behalf of her husband's estate, for recovery of funds Nathanael had spent in the service of the army. Eventually, she was awarded $47,000. She put her children in northern schools and sent her eldest son off to France, where his education was supervised by the Marquis de Lafayette. Dividing her time between Georgia and New England, she traveled sometimes with Miller and sometimes alone. Her widowed state allowed her to enjoy other freedoms, and she had at least one lengthy sexual liaison, with a business partner of her late husband. Over several years, as her infatuations ceased, she turned increasingly to Miller, who was ten years her junior.

In the fall of 1792, Catharine and Phineas were in the North when she approached Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, about a tutor for the children of neighbors in Mulberry Grove. Stiles recommended Eli Whitney, 27 years old and a recent Yale graduate. A Massachusetts native, raised in a Puritan atmosphere, Whitney had been burdened with family responsibilities from an early age, but his talent for tinkering had brought in extra money through the manufacture of ladies' hatpins, tools, and walking sticks. He also earned money as a schoolmaster before entering Yale.

By the time the Greene party reached Georgia, Whitney was yet another conquest of the 38-year-old beauty. With no real appetite for teaching and charmed by Caty, who was clearly by this point an accomplished lady, he agreed to stay on at Mulberry Grove, to construct useful items while studying law. Wondering at the tender, almost conjugal relationship between Caty and Phineas, he wrote to his brother, "I find myself in a new natural world and as for the moral world I believe it does not extend so far south." Caty had good reasons for not marrying again—propertied widows exercised more power over their own legal and financial lives than any other women in the culture.

Soon after his arrival, Eli and Catharine began to discuss with others the need for a machine to automate the tedious handwork of removing the stubborn seeds from the tangled fibers of cotton bolls before they could be combed and made into thread and cloth. Caty converted a room into a workshop into which only she, Phineas, and Eli were admitted, and Whitney created a model for such a machine. A partnership was then drawn up between Miller and Whitney, with Caty as the primary investor.

When people collaborate, it is often hard to separate out their individual contributions. In the case of teams of male inventors, "who did what" is usually not an issue. But historians of women have a different burden of proof and have taken pains in the case of Catharine to determine that she was not merely an inspiration or a patron in this invention. Two specific modifications, significant to the machine's operation, are credited to her: the addition of wire teeth, made from an old birdcage, and the suggestion that a brush could be employed to remove the cotton fibers from the teeth.

At Mulberry Grove, the spring of 1793 started as a happy time. The cotton "gin" (for "engine") was in the model stage, and looked promising; and Caty's son George was back home from France, after a narrow escape from the Reign of Terror, so that she had all five of her children with her for the first time in five years. George held a special place in his mother's heart. He was the child who had traveled most with her on her journeys, and he had been her comfort in the darkest days of the war. Home only a few weeks, George drowned while canoeing in the swollen Savannah river, and Caty would never again be able to regard the river without grief; according to her children, she was never the same.

Things also began to go wrong with the cotton gin. Whitney had gone to New England, looking to sell the patent rights, which took far longer than he imagined. Production was further delayed by a fire which required Eli to reproduce all his drawings and plans, in an amazing feat of memory. Caty and Phineas, looking for ways to raise capital to produce the invention, became involved in a land investment that turned into one of the biggest scandals of the day—the Yazoo Land Fraud. There was nothing technically illegal about the plan to buy cheap land from the state of Georgia and sell it to farmers for a profit, but when the public found out that members of the Georgia legislature had received free shares, a cry of corruption went up. Caty and Phineas, along with many others, found their investment lost and further capital tied up in a prolonged legal battle. As a result of the scandal, the patent rights for the gin were also set aside and competitors played on the public uproar, calling Phineas and Eli greedy monopolists. While Eli launched into the long legal fight to secure the patent, others were able to copy the relatively simple machine.

But all these troubles also brought Phineas and Caty closer together, and in the spring of 1796, with George and Martha Washington at their sides, they married in Philadelphia. The news so stunned Eli that it was months before he could bring himself to speak of it, and his love for Caty was slow to fade. In a bizarre twist, both he and Caty tried on two occasions to shift his affections to two of her daughters, but Louisa and Cornelia would have none of it. By 1800, despairing of ever making a living from the gins, Eli turned to manufacturing firearms, thus setting aside their collective dreams. That same year, news reached Caty that her friend George Washington had died in 1799. To satisfy unpaid taxes, Mulberry Grove was finally auctioned off for $15,000. Caty and Phineas moved with her children to one of Nathanael's remaining properties, on Georgia's Cumberland Island.

Life on the island could be warm and balmy, and was abundant with natural delicacies. The family changed residence, settling on a location they called "Dungeness." Cornelia and Louisa, both married, lived on the mainland nearby. In the spring of 1802, news came that the South Carolina legislature had agreed to buy the patent rights to the gin for $50,000, finally rendering the old partnership solvent. Under Phineas' management, the plantation prospered, but on a trip to procure tropical garden plants, he pricked his finger on a thorn and died of blood poisoning on December 7, 1802, at age 39. The death of her second husband left Caty both emotionally wrenched and financially embarrassed, with much of her property still tied up in the negotiations surrounding the Yazoo scandal, and Phineas' partnership with Whitney effectively dissolved by his death. Catharine's support had been sub rosa (confidential), so she had no legal right to the profits from the gin and had to rely on Eli's good faith. Though their correspondence reveals misunderstandings and tension at this time, all evidence suggests that he did not fail her.

In 1802, Caty's grief was compounded by the loss of several friends to dueling, including the handsome captain of her past, Alexander Hamilton. His murderer, Aaron Burr, was also her friend, and asked to stay at her house while on the run from the law. Caty solved this grisly social dilemma by permitting him to stay while removing her family to another part of the island; Burr took the hint and left after one night.

Her last days on Cumberland Island were marred by accusations of ill-treatment by Cornelia and Martha and their husbands. Though Catharine eventually settled with her two elder daughters, she did not speak of them in her letters and excluded them from her will. In the spring of 1814, a bill passed in Congress for the relief of the Yazoo investors, giving Caty a measure of financial security. That summer, struck by an island fever, she tossed and turned for a week while Nat and Louisa watched at her side. On September 2, 1814, near the end of her 60th year, she drifted into death.

A study of Caty Greene's life presents many challenges to generalizations about her times. Though historians are hampered by the lack of her own papers, a serious consideration of her life, constructed by surrounding documents, would surely shed light on the current debate about whether or not the American Revolution was a liberating experience for women. Wartime provided wide experience and freedom for Caty, as did widowhood and her own taste for adventure. But autonomy also entails responsibility. She grew, sometimes reluctantly when forced by circumstance, sometimes eagerly on her own initiative. And she flourished.


Booth, Sally Smith. The Women of '76. NY: Hastings House, 1973.

Engle, Paul. Women in the American Revolution. Chicago: Follett, 1976.

The Papers of Nathanael Greene. Vols. 1–7. University of North Carolina Press, 1976–1994.

Stegeman, John F., and Janet. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

There has not been any recent scholarly study of Catharine Greene's life. Shirley Seifert's Let My Name Stand Fair (NY: J.B. Lippincott, 1956) is not historically accurate, though it is highly colored. John and Janet Stegeman's book provides an interpretive narrative account. The Papers of Nathanael Greene, which are being published by the Rhode Island Historical Society, are the best source for the scholar.


The largest collection of Greene family papers is at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan; the National Archives, Library of Congress and American Philosophical Society Library also possess sizable holdings. The Rhode Island Historical Society, which sponsors the ongoing publication of Nathanael Greene's papers, should be the first stop on any journey to recreate Catharine Greene's life. Yale University has a good collection of Eli Whitney's papers.

Catherine A. Allgor , Assistant Professor of History, Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts

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