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MLA

Students face new instructions all of the time. In one single day, they might hear: "Use APA style to write this paper for psychology, but please use Chicago style for that paper for history, and don't forget to use MLA for that literature paper!"

There are so many rules for how to organize papers that starting an essay can feel overwhelming at times. Luckily, if writers familiarize themselves with the main formatting styles for papers, they will be setting up papers like a pro in no time! It is especially important that writers get to know MLA style, because it is used quite often in the humanities. MLA style helps writers craft organized essays and prove their credibility.

The Meaning of MLA

The acronym MLA stands for the Modern Language Association. It is an association in the United States that is focused on the study of languages and literature. In 1951 scholars at the organization published the first MLA style sheet, which established a specific set of guidelines for formatting papers and citing references. In 1977 the organization published a long MLA handbook that expanded on the rules in the style sheet. Today the organization is on the ninth edition of the MLA style, published in 2021. Writers in the arts and humanities typically use the MLA style.

MLA, Literature Example, StudySmarterWriters in the humanities and arts use MLA Style. Pixabay.

MLA Style

When formatting a paper according to the MLA style guide, writers should take the following steps:

  • Write on standard paper (8.5x11”)

  • Use 1-inch margins

  • Use 12-point sized font

  • Write in an easy-to-read font, such as Times New Roman

  • Make all of the text double-spaced

  • Indent the first word of each paragraph half an inch

  • Put their last name and page number on the top right-hand corner of each page

The Modern Language Association periodically updates the MLA style. While today it is on the ninth edition, it is likely that they will update the guidelines in the future. It is therefore important to double-check that a paper's format follows the most recent version of the MLA style guide.

MLA Format Example

Below is an example of how to format a paper according to the MLA style guide:

MLA, layout of an MLA Essay, StudysmarterThink carefully about how you format and structure your essay, StudySmarter Originals.

MLA References

When using outside sources in a paper it is crucial that writers cite those sources. Citing sources allows readers to easily find the sources a writer used and learn more about the topic from those sources. Using proper citations also ensures that writers avoid plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the act of stealing another author’s work and pretending it is one's own.

Even if writers forget to cite sources, their work can still be considered plagiarized, because their ideas came from others who were not given credit. To avoid being accused of plagiarism, all writers have to do is make sure they use proper in-text citations and reference lists that follow a style guide like MLA!

MLA In-Text Citations

When writers use direct quotes from other sources in their writing, or when they paraphrase an idea, they need to include in-text citations at the end of the sentence to follow MLA guidelines. MLA style uses what is called the author-page method of citations, which means that the author’s last name and the page number where the writer found the information both go in parentheses at the end of the sentence. The following is an MLA in-text citation about The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

The narrator Nick lives in West Egg, “the less fashionable of the two” eggs (Fitzgerald 5).

There are a few cases in which the author’s last name does not go in the parentheses. For instance, if the writer mentions the author’s name in the sentence, then only the page number has to go in parentheses, like so:

Fitzgerald wrote that “Gatsby believed in the green light…” (182).

Another situation in which writers do not need to include authors’ last names is when the most recent citation was from the same source.

One symbol in The Great Gatsby is the green light which represents the “orgastic future.” (Fitzgerald 182). Another symbol is the Valley of the Ashes, the land about “half way between West Egg and New York…” (23).

Sometimes, writers will need to cite two or more sources at the end of a sentence. To do this, all they need to do is put a semi-colon between the two citations. For example:

Recent research on the topic shows that scholars’ past ideas are flawed (Johnson 45; Smith 18).

MLA, Works Cited, StudySmarterMLA requires an alphabetized works cited list. Flaticon.

MLA Works Cited Page

MLA formatting guidelines also require a works cited page at the end of the paper. Writers list all of the sources they used in the paper on the works cited page. The works cited page should have the following:

  • The title “Works Cited” in the center (not italicized or bolded)

  • One-inch margins

  • Writer’s last name and page number on the top right-hand corner

  • Double spacing between citations

  • All citations in alphabetical order by author's last name

  • Hanging indents on all citations

A hanging indent is a style of indentation in which the first line is not indented but the second line and the following lines are indented. Hanging indents are required in several formatting styles including MLA and APA.

Citing a book in MLA

Format:

Last Name, First Name. Title of Book. Publication City, Publisher, Publication Date.

Example:

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1925.

Citing a webpage in MLA

Format:

Author last name, First name. “Title of Article.” Website Name, URL. Accessed Day Month Year.

Example:

Loosi, Samantha. “5 Study Methods and Techniques.” Educationville, www.educationville.org/article/5-study-methods-and-techniques. Accessed 4 April 2019.

Citing a PDF in MLA

It is common to come across PDFs on the internet that are useful for research. These can be tricky to cite because the type of source will vary. For instance, it might be a PDF of a book or a PDF of a report. MLA cites PDFs depending on the original source type, so if it is a PDF of a book it will follow the guidelines for citing a book, and so on. At the end, add the name of file with the digital format extension.

Format:

Author's Last Name, First Name. Title of Book. Publication City, Publisher, Publication Date, URL, PDF file or PDF download.

Example:

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York City, Routledge, 1994 sites.utexas.edu/lsjcs/files/2018/02/Teaching-to-Transcend.pdf.

It is common to come across PDFs on the internet that are useful for research. These can be tricky to cite because the type of source will vary. For instance, it might be a PDF of a book or a PDF of a report. MLA cites PDFs depending on the original source type, so if it is a PDF of a book it will follow the guidelines for citing a book, and so on.

Citing a scholarly journal in MLA

Format:

Author(s). "Title of Article." Title of Journal, Volume, Issue, Year, pages. DOI

Example:

Garbarino, James. “ACEs in the Criminal Justice System.” Academic pediatrics, vol. 17, 7S, 2017, S32-S33. doi:10.1016/j.acap.2016.09.003

The acronym DOI stands for Digitial Object Identifier. Every published article has a DOI so that researchers can easily locate it at a permanent web address. It is important that writers put DOIs in MLA citations because doing this ensures readers can find their sources for further research and to ensure credibility.

MLA Pros and Cons

Like any formatting guide, MLA has both pros and cons. If writers have the option to select what formatting style to use, they should consider the information they want to present to their reader in the text and what will be the clearest way to organize their information.

ProsCons
Provides readers with exact page numbers of sources in-textDoes not contextualize in-text citations with years of publication
Ensures that writers do not plagiarizeHas many rules that can be hard to keep track of
Formatting ensures uniformity and organizationIn-text citations may be distracting for readers

Differences Between MLA and APA Style

Another formatting style that writers often use is called APA, which is the American Psychological Association's guide to formatting papers and citations. The chart below outlines the main differences between the MLA citation style and the APA formatting style.

MLA

APA

Used in the humanities and arts

Used in the behavioral and social sciences

Uses the author-page method of in-text citation e.g. (Johnson 54).

Uses the author-date method of in-text citation e.g. (Johnson, 2004).

References start with the Author’s Last Name, First Name, Title of Work

References start with the Author’s Last Name, First initial (Year of Publication)

MLA - Key takeaways

  • MLA Style is the Modern Language Association's guide for formatting papers and citing sources.
  • MLA is usually used in the humanities and arts, while APA is usually used in the social and behavioral sciences.
  • MLA is different than APA because it uses author-page instead of author-date style.
  • MLA style requires an alphabetized works cited list.
  • MLA style in-text citations should have the author’s last name followed by the page number of the information, like (Fitzgerald 5).

Frequently Asked Questions about MLA

MLA format is the Modern Language Association's guide for formatting papers and citations. 

MLA format requires double-spaced, 12-pt font, 1-inch margins, and the writer's last name and page number on the top right-hand corner. 

Here is an example to site a website in MLA format:

Author last name, First name. “Title of Article.” Website Name, Day Month Year, URL. 

Here is an example to site a pdf in MLA format:

Author's last name, Author's first name. "Title." Publisher, Source Name, Day Month Year, Pages, URL, PDF file or PDF download.

MLA stands for the Modern Language Association. 

Final MLA Quiz

Question

What does MLA stand for?

Show answer

Answer

Modern Language Association 

Show question

Question

Does MLA follow author-date or author-page format?

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Answer

Author-page

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Question

True or False: MLA works cited pages have to be in alphabetical order. 

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Answer

True. MLA works cited pages are in alphabetical order by author's last name.

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Question

Which of the following is not a requirement of MLA?

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Answer

Single spacing

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Question

Which of the following is a difference between MLA and APA?

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Answer

APA follows author-date format and MLA follows author-page

Show question

Question

What does DOI stand for?

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Answer

Digital Object Identifier 

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Question

Which of the following is an MLA in-text citation?

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Answer

(Hemingway 14).

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Question

Which of the following is a correct MLA citation?

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Answer

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York, Scribner, 1954

Show question

Question

Which of the following is a feature of an MLA works cited list? 

Show answer

Answer

Hanging indents 

Show question

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