Imagine this: You’re in class and the instructor is explaining the latest assignment. As they finish the explanation, they mention that the assignment is to be in MLA format.
MLA format. You know you’ve heard that term somewhere, but you aren’t 100 percent sure what it entails. Have no fear: MLA format is just a set of formatting and citation guidelines that tell you how your finished paper should look.
There are a lot of rules to follow to get MLA format just right, but you can easily find them all online. We’re here to explain where to find them, how to use them, and the reason you’re required to format certain assignments this way.
What is MLA format?
MLA format is developed by the Modern Language Association to provide a uniform way for academics in the arts and humanities fields to format their works and cite their sources. MLA format, like other academic style guides, includes specific guidelines for a paper’s heading, in-text citations, works cited page, quotations, abbreviations, and even the size of the margins.
This format (like other academic formats) takes the guesswork out of formatting your academic writing and ensures that your sources are cited and credited properly, leaving you, and your readers, to focus on your paper’s content.
10 key points about MLA format:
1 The sources page is referred to as the works cited page
2 The entire paper should be double-spaced, including block quotations and the references on the works cited page
3 Use block quotes for quotations that are four lines or longer
4 Abbreviations do not include periods between the letters (i.e., US instead of U.S.)
5 The paper should be printed on 8.5 x 11 inch paper
6 There should be a one-inch margin along all sides of the paper
7 The paper should be written in size 12 Times New Roman, Arial, or Helvetica font
8 Each page must include the author’s last name and the page number in the top right corner
9 A title page is not required
10 The heading should be left-justified on the first page and include the following:
- The author’s name
- The instructor’s name
- The course number
- The date the paper is due
MLA format’s defining characteristics don’t end here. They also include formatting requirements for citations, but we’ll cover that later. First, it’s important to understand when to use MLA format.
When to use MLA format
Use MLA format for the final draft of every piece of academic writing, including essays, reports, and research papers, that you do in your arts and humanities courses. That means English, history, theater, and any other classes you take that fall into these categories.
If you aren’t sure if you need to use MLA, or if a specific formatting style is even necessary for a particular assignment, ask your instructor.
Use MLA format for every part of an assignment you submit. That includes any essay outline, research proposal, literature review, or list of sources your instructor asks you to submit before or alongside your final paper. There’s no need to format your first draft or any other documents that don’t reach your professor, though you certainly can use MLA format throughout the writing process if you’d prefer. One benefit of doing this is that you’ll see approximately how many pages your final draft will span before you reach that stage.
MLA vs. APA and other formats
MLA is one of the most commonly used academic style guides, especially for high school and undergraduate students. You might also be familiar with APA format, the American Psychological Association’s style guide. Both include instructions for formatting citations, crediting your sources, paraphrasing, using quotations in your work, and other aspects of writing academic papers.
MLA format is used for academic writing in the arts and humanities. APA is used for the social sciences. Both are optimized for their academic areas: While MLA format has rules for citing creative works like paintings, plays, and videos, APA has rules for citing technical papers and scientific research.
While MLA and APA are two of the most well-known style guides, they aren’t the only ones. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is another guide used in literature and the humanities, though it’s usually used at the postgraduate level.
Other academic style guides include:
- Associated Press Stylebook (AP Stylebook): This format is used in journalism and magazine writing.
- The Economist Style Guide: This format is used in economic and financial writing.
- American Chemical Society (ACS): Chemistry students and researchers typically format their work according to this guide.
- The Manual of Scientific Style: This style guide is primarily used in the physical and biological science fields.
Academic writing isn’t the only field governed by style guides. Companies and open-source coding projects often require programmers to adhere to specific style guides for the code and attributions submitted. Just like in academic writing, these style guides ensure the code maintains a uniform look and feel, making it easier for collaborators to understand and work with.
How to write MLA citations, with examples
As we mentioned above, one of the key differences between MLA style and other academic styles is how citations are formatted. This includes both in-text citations, as well as citations on your works cited page.
For citations on your works cited page, MLA format requires that the citation be formatted as follows:
Author’s Last Name, First Name. Title in Title Case. Publisher, year published.
Here’s an example:
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Gray, 2015.
In-text citations should be noted with the author’s last name and the page number of the work you’re citing in parentheses immediately following the reference. For example:
“In writing, perfection is the enemy of the people.” (Lamott 28).
The works cited page
On your works cited page, list your sources alphabetically by the first word in the citation (usually the author’s last name, but if the author is unknown, use the first word of the title, excluding “the,” “a,” or “an”). If there are multiple works by the same author, list them alphabetically. This is another one of MLA’s format-specific rules. Another is that when naming a work’s author, list the author’s last name followed by their first name and, if applicable, middle name or initial.
An author citation should look like this:
In MLA format, a cited work’s title is italicized if you’re citing the entire work. For example:
Lies my Teacher Told Me.
When you’re citing a chapter or section within a larger work, use quotation marks around the chapter title, then follow this with the work’s full title in italics:
“School Lunches.” Bird by Bird.
Keep in mind that MLA has specific guidelines for citing just about any kind of source, including photos, websites, speeches, Wikipedia articles, and YouTube videos. Here’s a resource for finding the right format for every citation you might include in your paper.
Please take care to ensure that you cite your sources correctly. Failure to do so can be considered plagiarism, even if it’s unintentional.
MLA format FAQs
What is MLA format?
MLA format is the academic style guide developed by the Modern Language Association. It’s the standard format for academic papers in the arts and humanities. MLA has specific guidelines for citing books, films, TV shows, newspaper articles, PDFs, and other types of sources.
How is it different from other formats?
There are numerous differences between MLA format and other academic formats. One of the most notable is how sources are cited.
What are some examples of MLA citations?
In-text citation: (Lamott 28).
Reference listed on the works cited page: Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Gray, 2015.
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