MLA Format and Citations: Everything Students Have to Know


What Is MLA Format?

MLA format stands for the Modern Language Association, an organization that focuses on language and literature. Depending on which subject area your class or research focuses on, your professor may ask you to cite your sources in MLA format. This is a specific way to cite, following the Modern Language Association's guidelines.

There are other styles, such as APA and Chicago citation style, but MLA format is often used for literature, language, liberal arts, and other humanities subjects. This guide extensively covers this format but is not associated with the organization.

The 9th edition is the most recent and updated version for MLA format citations. Released in April 2021, the citation format differs slightly from previous versions. This update follows the 2016 update for the 8th edition, which contained many significant changes from previous editions.

For the 8th edition, the biggest difference and most exciting update was the use of one standard format for all source types. In previous MLA versions, scholars were required to locate the citation format for the specific source they used. There were different formats for books, websites, periodicals, etc. After 2016, using one universal MLA citation format allowed scholars to spend less time trying to locate the proper format to document their sources and focus more on their research.

Other updates included the addition of “containers.” A container provides details on a work contained within a larger work. For example, books contain chapters, albums contain songs, and journals contain journal articles. The source is the larger work, such as a website, while the container is a smaller work within that source, such as a short story on the website. Use a paper writing service if all the intricacies of the MLA formatting become mind-boggling.

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When Students Should Use the MLA Format?

Adopt MLA format for the final version of all academic writing assignments, encompassing essays, reports, and research papers within your arts and humanities courses. This guideline applies to subjects such as English, arts, philosophy, religion, ethics, and related fields. If uncertain about the required format for a specific assignment, consult your instructor for clarification.

Ensure adherence to MLA format for all components of your assignment submissions, including paper outlines, research proposals, literature reviews, and source lists. This practice extends to any preliminary materials your instructor requests before or alongside your final paper.

While there's no necessity to format drafts or other documents unseen by your professor, you are welcome to use MLA format throughout the writing process. This approach allows you to gauge the approximate length of your final draft before reaching that stage.

MLA Format Essential Guidelines

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MLA Format Rules

  1. The works cited page, also known as the sources page, is positioned at the paper's conclusion, following any endnotes.
  2. Maintain double-spacing throughout the entire paper, encompassing block quotations and references on the works cited page.
  3. Utilize block quotes for quotations exceeding four lines in length.
  4. Abbreviations should lack periods between the letters (e.g., use "US" instead of "U.S.").
  5. Print the paper on standard 8½-by-11-inch paper.
  6. Establish a 1-inch margin on all sides of the paper, excluding the running head.
  7. Opt for Times New Roman, Arial, or Helvetica font with a text size falling between 11 and 13.
  8. Include a running head on every page featuring the author's last name and the page number in the top-right corner. The running head aligns with the right margin and sits 1.5 inches from the page's top.
  9. A title page is not obligatory.
  10. On the first page, left-justify the heading, which must incorporate the author's name, instructor's name, course number, and the due date of the paper.

MLA Style Rules

  1. MLA format incorporates the use of the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma.
  2. Express numbers or fractions in words if they can be articulated in one or two words (e.g., eighty-eight, five million, or two-thirds). Employ numerals when more than two words are necessary (e.g., 101; 2,981; or 2 ½). However, when a mix of these numbers occurs or when numbers are frequently discussed, utilize numerals (e.g., between 3 and 125 people).
  3. Utilize numerals for items presented in a series (e.g., chapter 6, page 12, or room 34).
  4. Spell out a number if it initiates a sentence. Alternatively, consider rephrasing the sentence with a different opening for enhanced readability.
  5. Refrain from abbreviating dates. You may choose either the month-day-year or day-month-year formats, but ensure consistency throughout the entire document.
  6. When introducing a person for the first time, use their full name unless they are commonly identified by their surname alone, such as Cervantes or Cicero. Subsequent mentions of the individual should employ only their surname, including particles like de, O’, or von.

How to Cite Sources in MLA Format?

In every academic paper you compose, it is essential to cite sources, indicating the origins of your evidence or key points. This practice is crucial not only to prevent plagiarism but also to substantiate your ideas with supporting evidence.

As outlined in the MLA format handbook, you are required to cite sources "when the work of others influences your ideas." Consequently, each idea not originating from you necessitates its own citation, even if multiple ideas are presented in the same sentence. Don’t forget to check out the guide on MLA vs APA format to learn the difference between these two popular citation styles.

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MLA In-text Citations

MLA format gives preference to in-text citations, involving the direct citation of the source within the text, placed adjacent to its reference. There are two types of in-text citations: parenthetical and narrative.

Parenthetical citations are concise, containing only essential information. In MLA format, they typically feature the author's or creator's last name, with the option of including a page number, line number, or time stamp.

Example: The Greek myth of Sisyphus provides the perfect analogy for humankind’s struggle to live with the absurdity of life (Camus 78).

Narrative MLA format citations occur when the author's name is mentioned in the text, rendering the subsequent citation redundant. In such cases, parenthetical citations are necessary only if they include a page number or location.

Example: Camus finds the Greek myth of Sisyphus to be the perfect analogy for humankind’s struggle of living with the absurdity of life (78).

Both types of in-text citations require a comprehensive citation on the works cited page. In instances where the author's name is unavailable, use the first element for that entry in the works cited page, typically the work's title.

Footnotes and Endnotes in the MLA Format

Footnotes and endnotes are infrequently used in the MLA format, where in-text citations are generally preferred. Nevertheless, there are specific scenarios where footnotes or endnotes are appropriate:

1. Series of sources: When multiple citations are needed for the same passage in a single line, using a note is preferable to multiple in-text citations.

Example: The poet explores the theme of nature in various works (see Smith 45; Johnson 22).^1

2. Deviations from standard documentation: Using the MLA format, notes can be employed when not adhering to standard documentation practices. One of them is to cite line numbers instead of page numbers for poetry. Mention this deviation only in the initial reference to the source.

Example: The poetic lines emphasize the theme of love (Browning, lines 12-15).^2

3. Flagging editions or translations: In cases of multiple versions of a text, notes can indicate the specific edition or translation being used, mentioned only in the first reference to the source.

Example: Shakespeare's play is interpreted differently in the Norton edition (Shakespeare, Norton, 23).^3

4. Content notes: For supplementary but nonessential information, like personal commentary or word choice explanations, notes can be employed. Footnotes and endnotes serve well for these tangential asides that don't seamlessly fit into the main text.

Example: The term has diverse meanings in different cultural contexts (see Jones 56; Smith 78).^4

5. In MLA-formatted papers, either footnotes or endnotes may be used, but not both. Consistency is key. Footnotes appear at the bottom of the page, while endnotes are compiled on a separate page titled "Notes" or "Endnotes" at the conclusion of a section, chapter, or entire work.

To signal a note in the MLA format, place a superscript number at the end of the sentence the note refers to. If a note is needed within a sentence, position it after a punctuation mark, such as a comma, colon, or semicolon. An exception is the dash, where note numbers precede the dash.

Example: Certain translations use an alternative word choice^1, and Camus appears to admire Sisyphus’s determination.^2

6. Each note number in the text corresponds to a footnote or an endnote later in the work, arranged in numerical order. Each note initiates with the superscript number corresponding to its place in the text.

Example: Thomas Warren suggests Camus’s use of "la mesure" should be translated as "measurement"^1, and some scholars disagree with this assessment^2.

MLA explicitly prohibits the use of the abbreviation "ibid."

Works Cited Page for MLA

In accordance with MLA format guidelines, every source referenced in your paper must be accompanied by a comprehensive citation on the works cited page – a section positioned at the end of the document that enumerates all sources along with their bibliographic details.

In the MLA format, the works cited page is situated after any endnotes and is appropriately titled "Works Cited." It adheres mostly to the same text and formatting principles as the rest of the document, featuring one-inch page margins and a text size between 11 to 13.

Entries on cited this page are arranged alphabetically by the initial word of each entry, typically the last name of the author or creator. One specific formatting rule for the works cited page is the utilization of a hanging indent, where every line after the first in a single entry is indented by half an inch.

Example: Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, New York, Random House, 1955.

To improve your citation style competence, consult our Chicago/Turabian style guide to navigate effortlessly between all three major styles (including MLA and APA). 

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