MLA

Students face new instructions all of the time. In a 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!"

MLA MLA

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Table of contents

    There are so many rules for organizing papers that starting an essay can sometimes feel overwhelming. 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, which is often used 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, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Writers in the humanities and arts use MLA Style.

    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, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Think carefully about how you format and structure your essay.

    MLA References

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

    Plagiarism is stealing another author's work and pretending it is one's own.

    Even if a writer forgets to their cite sources on a paper, that work is still plagiarized because their ideas came from someone else uncredited. To avoid being accused of plagiarism, all writers must 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 paraphrase an idea, they need to include in-text citations at the end of the sentence to follow MLA guidelines. MLA style uses the "author-page method" of citations, which means that the author's last name and the page number where the writer found the information 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, StudySmarterFig. 3 - MLA requires an alphabetized works cited list.

    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 and 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 file name 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 this ensures readers can find their sources for further research.

    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

    What is MLA format?

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

    How do you format with MLA style?

    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. 

    How to site a website in MLA format?

    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. 

    How to site a pdf in MLA format?

    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.

    What does MLA stand for?

    MLA stands for the Modern Language Association. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What does MLA stand for?

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

    Which of the following is not a requirement of MLA?

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