Resources for Working with MLA
The acronym MLA stands for Modern Language Association. The MLA is a professional, international organization based in New York City, New York, U.S.A. Its stated purpose is to strengthen the study and teaching of language and literature. It also provides a way for people working in the humanities to format their documents and handle source materials (we call this “MLA style”), and it is the principal professional organization for the humanities field.
What are the humanities? They are the field of study concerned with human culture, including literature, history, art, music, religion, foreign languages, and philosophy. In contrast, the empiric disciplines are those concerned with subjects involving verification through data collections, measurement, observation and other techniques for verification. The empiric fields of study include the sciences, math, teaching, history, psychology, and others.
As mentioned above, MLA style helps us format our documents and handle source materials. The use of a consistent document format by everyone using MLA makes it possible for us to pick up an MLA-formatted paper and follow it easily, without having to figure out how it’s arranged. Likewise, the use of a consistent approach to handling sources helps a writer avoid plagiarism and also helps a reader follow the writer’s use of sources.
Modern Language Association style periodically undergoes revision to keep up with changes in writing and publishing. The most recent ninth edition of MLA came out in 2021. Here’s what the MLA organization had to say about “MLA 9”:
“The ninth edition of the MLA Handbook, published in 2021, rethinks documentation for an era of digital publication. The MLA now recommends a universal set of guidelines that writers can apply to any source and gives writers in all fields—from the sciences to the humanities—the tools to intuitively document sources” (“What’s New”).
As a college student studying writing, you’ll use MLA style to accomplish the following:
1. To format your documents using a consistent style.
MLA style is the “outfit” of our written documents in the humanities. Much like a football player wears a helmet and pads or a soccer player wears shin guards, our documents “wear” a certain style of formatting. We’ll discuss that more below.
2. To identify and manage source materials when you use them in your own writing.
This insures you use sources correctly in your own work and give credit to the person who owns and/or created the source material, both of which help you avoid plagiarism. It also allows others—who read and are interested in your work—to easily review and consult the sources you’ve used.
Using MLA to Format Your Documents
The following are the basic guidelines for setting up an MLA-formatted document. Your word processor will have menu controls to help you with these settings.
- Set side margins to 1” on left, right, top, and bottom.
- Set margins to 0.5” for header and footer.
- Use a standard* 12-point font throughout the document.
- Double-space throughout the document.
- Use a straight left edge and a “ragged” right edge.
- Indent paragraphs ½” (1 tab).
- Center a document title on page 1. Use plain 12-point font—do not bold, underline, or italicize.
- Create an upper left heading on page 1 only. This should include the following:
- Your name (first and last name)
- The teacher’s name
- The name of the class
- The date, in MLA style**
- Create an upper right header for all pages. This should include the following:
- Your last name
- An automatic page number
*Examples of standard fonts include Times, Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, and others. Avoid non-standard Microsoft fonts like Calibri and Cambria, typewriter fonts (Courier), and overly-casual fonts (Comic Sans and Papyrus).
**MLA date format is very specific: it includes, in this order, the day of month, month, and year.
For example, the day February 11 in the year 2023 would look like this: 11 February 2023.
Longer months can also be abbreviated, so it could also look like this: 11 Feb. 2023.
Note that there are no commas in an MLA-style date.
Use this format for your document heading and on your Works Cited list. When mentioning dates in your paper, use traditional format, i.e., “On February 11, 2023, I found the world’s best coffee shop.”
Why does MLA use this date format? When people in the U.S. write a date like this—2/11/23—we read it as February 11, 2023.
But guess what: most of the rest of the world would read that as November 2, 2023! (Yes, really! To avoid confusion, and because MLA is a format used internationally, MLA uses this unique date format.)
A Four-Step Process for Working with Sources
1: Create a Works Cited Page. When you bring a source into to your writing, create a Works Cited page and immediately add your source to the page, creating a complete, correct listing.
2: Use Sources Correctly. Bring written sources into your paper using quotation, paraphrase, or summary.
3: Cite/Identify In-Text Sources. When you add a source to your paper, immediatelycite or identify it where it occurs.
4: Proofread Your Work with Sources.
- Check and double-check to make sure every sentence containing a source has been properly cited or identified.
- Make sure Works Cited listings and in-text citations “match.” If you mention a source in your paper, it must also appear on the Works Cited list. If you mention a source on your Works Cited list, it must also appear in the paper.
Here are some excellent online resources to help you work with MLA:
- The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL): this site is used by educators and colleges all over the US and in other countries as well. It will help you not just with MLA but with all aspects of writing, research, grammar, usage, etc. It has an excellent search tool. It’s also updated almost continuously.
- The MLA Style Center: this is a subdivision of the larger MLA website. It has great materials to help students practice with MLA. It has a downloadable copy of the MLA template, FAQ pages, and more.
- MLA Practice Template: from the MLA Style Center. Use this to practice formatting your citations.
- MHCC Citation Style Guides: Use this guide to help find examples and websites for common citation styles, including APA, MLA, Chicago, CSE, AP, ASA, and AFS styles. Citation styles are formatting rules for citing other authors’ work within your paper (in-text or parenthetical citations) and in a bibliography at the end of your paper (References or Works Cited lists). For an introduction to citation styles, see the link to UNC, Chapel Hill. Before we talk about citation styles, let’s step back and consider the basics: the reason or the need for citing anything at all. As that site explains: All quality academic writing includes information learned from others’ and one’s own unique analysis and contributions.
MLA Citations and Bibliography
Why do you want to include the thoughts of others? Why not just your own?
1) More information.
2) Builds credence for your arguments.
3) Demonstrates your knowledge of the field.
4) Engages you in scholarship, which is building creatively on thoughts of others in your field.
Your essays will sometimes will have a single main point or thesis that you argue. That thesis is your own idea that you can support with engaging evidence and specific arguments. Your “answers” to writing prompts are your own conclusions that come from your review of the relevant, authoritative material you engage on the topic.
You want to tell us your cultivated “answers” to the questions that emerge from your writing prompts and assignments in your own words and also with the words of others to support your views and to give us confidence that what you say is true because it is also coming from the mouths of authorities. You are the architect who is building a building. You decide what that building will look like and in what order and with what materials it will be built. But your building materials are these idea blocks that you collect from your research: that is the ideas and the words of others.
As you read an article or book, copy and save its bibliographic information. You may or may not end up citing it, but get the info up front in case you need it later.
Some people use their own ideas and also the ideas of others and run them together so that we do not know the difference: we don’t know where the writer’s thoughts end and the thoughts of other experts begin. What is wrong with this?
(We don’t know what you are adding, personally, to the discussion. So it confuses people. Also ideas, in America, are considered valuable things. Using other people’s ideas without giving credit is like stealing. Those thoughts are valuable.)
Increasingly, teachers allow and even encourage students to use images—photographs, maps, sketches, graphs, and so forth—in their writing. Before you do this, check with your teacher to make sure they approve. And then remember that if the image was created by someone else, you must give them credit.
We don’t list images on the Works Cited page. But we do identify them in one of two ways:
- If your word processor allows captioning, you can add the image information in a caption.
- Otherwise, mention it in the text at the point you are talking about it, enclosing the information in parentheses.
- Ideally, include the author(s), title of source, title of container, publisher, date, and location.
Here’s an example of how you might cite a sketch taken from a hard copy book, where “The Perfect Poodle Hairdo” is the name of sketch and Styling Poodles for Fun and Profit is the book title:
Groomer, Ima. “The Perfect Poodle Coif.” Styling Poodles for Fun and Profit, Poodle Publishing, 2015.
Plagiarism begins where the line between others’ work and one’s own becomes blurred.
What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is “the act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one’s own creation” (West’s Encyclopedia of American Law).
To avoid plagiarism, you have to avoid the obvious problems of taking a whole paper off the web or taking one from another student.
But you also have to do more: You must cite words taken from another.
Citing means to show who said it and where, so that your reader could go and find those original words elsewhere. You need to cite whether you use the exact words from another or paraphrase that person.
What is paraphrasing?
One way to avoid plagiarizing is to paraphrase. That is to restate the author’s words in your words, Paraphrasing is a fine way to use another person’s ideas to support your argument as long as you attribute the material to the author and cite the source in the text at the end of the sentence. In order to make sure you are paraphrasing in the first place, take notes from your reading with the book closed.
What needs to be cited?
1. Direct quotes
2. Paraphrases (rephrased or summarized material)
3. Phrases taken from sources
4. Words specific or unique to the author’s research, theories, or ideas
5. Use of an author’s argument or line of thinking
6. Historical, statistical, or scientific facts
7. Articles or studies you may refer to within your essay
Things you don’t need to document:
1. Proverbs, axioms, and sayings (“A stitch in time saves nine.” “The early bird gets the worm,” etc.)
2. Well-known quotations (“The personal is political.”)
3. Common knowledge (Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, or oxygen’s atomic number is 8, or Vincent Van Gogh painted “Starry Night.”) If a knowledgeable reader would be familiar with the information, you don’t need to cite. You may, in fact, need to consult with a reader within the discipline to find out. If she’d have to look it up, you probably should document it. If you aren’t sure if something counts as common knowledge, document it to be safe.
When in doubt, give a citation.
From the UNC website: “Next, try thinking about your notes as a kind of transitional “space” between what you’ve read and what you’re preparing to write. Imagine yourself having a conversation with the author of the story/novel/play/poem/article/book you’re reading, in which you repeatedly ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the author trying to explain?
- Why does s/he think these points are important?
- How has s/he decided to construct the argument?
- How does the structure of the argument affect the reader’s response to the author’s ideas?
- How effective is the author’s argument?
Adopting this “conversational” approach to note-taking will improve your analysis of the material by leading you to notice not just what the author says, but also how and why the author communicates his or her ideas. This strategy will also help you avoid the very common temptation of thinking that the author’s way of explaining something is much better than anything you could write. If you are tempted to borrow the author’s language, write your notes with the book closed to ensure that you are putting the ideas into your own words. If you’ve already taken a step “away” from the author’s words in your notes, you’ll find it easier to use your own words in the paper you write.”
- Consult this document from the MHCC Writing Tutors for more tips on how to understand and avoid plagiarism in your writing.
What if there are gaps in information you need?
Admittedly, as you gather these items (above), you may encounter some gaps. What if the journal article has no name, but it has an author, and a publication date? What if the website gives you a page number but not a title or a date? In these cases remember: If you have it (author’s name, website title, date, etc.), use it; if you don’t have it, you can’t use it.
Regarding the number of citations:
Usually don’t worry about too many citations, as long as they are being used to support your own unique argument and/or response to your essay prompt(s).
Are you worried that you have “too few” citations? Double-check your assignment to see if you have been given any indication of the number or kind of source materials expected. Then share your writing with another reader. Do you have enough evidence or proof to support the ideas you put forward? Why should the reader believe the points you have made? Would adding another, expert voice strengthen your argument? Who else agrees or disagrees with the ideas you have written? Have you paraphrased ideas that you have read or heard? If so, you need to cite them. Have you referred to or relied on course material to develop your ideas? If you, you need to cite it as well.
The purpose of the Works Cited page is to collect all of the sources used in a text and to arrange them so they are easy for your reader to locate. Listing the sources also helps you track them and makes it less likely that you might accidentally plagiarize by forgetting to mention a piece of source material.
Setting up the Page
Follow these guidelines to set up your Works Cited:
- Works Cited is located at the end of a paper. Always start it at the top of a new page.
- Title it Works Cited, even if there is only a single source listed.
- Center the title at the topmost point on the page.
- The Works Cited page uses the same formatting as the rest of the paper: 12 point standard font, double spacing, 1” margins on all sides, etc.
- List sources alphabetically, according to whatever comes first in each citation. (Do not list them in the order they occur within the paper.)
- Use “hanging” paragraphs to set up sources. This means that the first line of each source begins at the left margin, while second and subsequent lines are indented by ½” (1 tab). This is the reverse of a regular paragraph. The “hanging” format makes it easily to visually scroll down the list and see each source. If you are using Microsoft Word, you can set hanging paragraphs by choosing the “hanging” setting in the “Paragraphs” menu.
Here’s an annotated example of a Works Cited page (click here to open in a new page):
Creating Entries on the Works Cited Page
The newest version of MLA—version 9—came out in 2021 and promises to be the citation style of the electronic age. Rather than the previous method, which involved creating a separate style for each different kinds of source (and was very time-intensive), it created a single template (see the link provided below) to be used for all types of source materials.
Let’s look at how to set up Works Cited citations. We’ll work through one, and then I’ll add some details.
We’ll work with this article from The Atlantic (found at theatlantic.com): “The Importance of High School Mentors.”
Open the MLA template, too. To use the template, start at the top and fill in information about the source. If there are lines in the template you can’t fill in, we simply leave them blank. Note that on the template, each item is followed with specific punctuation. Copy these as you create your own citations.
Enter the author’s name on line 1 of the template.
- The first author’s name is always reversed: Last Name, First Name.
- It is in plain font and (as you’ll note in the template) is followed with a period.
Here’s what you should have on line 1:
Title of Source.
This is the name of the material you’re working with.
- Capitalize all words in the title of source except for articles, conjunctions, and prepositions.
- If it is an article, essay, chapter, or any other “small” piece of material, it will be in quotation marks and plain font.
- If it is a book, film, periodical, or an entire web page, it will be in italic font with no quotation marks.
- The title of source is followed with a period—and when quotation marks are used, note that the period always goes inside the quotation marks (see below).
Here’s what should be on line 2:
“The Importance of High School Mentors.”
Title of Container.
The container is the “place” that holds or houses the source you’re using. For example:
A book chapter (the “title of source”) is held within a book (the “container”).
A newspaper article (the “title of source”) is held within a newspaper (the “container”).
An essay on a web page (the “title of source”) is held within a website (the “container”).
A magazine article (the “title of source”) is held within a magazine (the “container”).
(And so forth)
- The container is almost always* in italic font and followed by a comma.
- Capitalize it fully.
*An example of a non-italicized container would be if you were citing an actual painting and the “container” was an art museum. The museum would be listed as the container but in plain font.
You have two options for the container in this case; either would be correct:
This line provides a way to mention people who assisted with creating or handling the source, e.g., directors, translators, performers, illustrators, etc.
- List them using plain, unabbreviated language, e.g., performed by, directed by, etc.
- Other contributors are listed in plain font and followed with a comma.
Our article has no “other contributors,” and so we would leave this blank, skipping it. When you hit sections of the template where you have no information, just skip them and move on.
Use this if you want to mention an edition number (e.g., Second Edition, Evening Edition, etc.) or if you want to list a volume (Volume 3), a month (January), etc.
- Version is written in plain font and followed by a comma.
Our article has no version, so we’ll leave line 5 blank.
Use this to provide an issue number (e.g., for a magazine or journal), a special archive number (e.g., with museum pieces), or something similar.
- Number is in plain font and followed by a comma.
Our article has no number, so we’ll leave line 6 blank.
The publisher is the person or institution that makes the source available to the world.
- Publishers for books, periodicals, and printed materials are usually written on one of the first pages.
- Web page publishers can usually be found at the page bottom. If you cannot find the publisher quickly, you might use Google to search for it, i.e., searching ‘New York Times Publisher.’
- Film and music publishers will usually be located on the material.
- Write out the complete publisher name; capitalize it fully and don’t abbreviate or omit words.
- The publisher is in plain font and followed by a comma.
If we scroll to the page bottom, we find our publisher for line 7:
The Atlantic Monthly Group,
This is the date of the “title of source” (see line 2).
- Use MLA date format: day month year
- Follow the date with a comma.
- With longer months, you may abbreviate the source; if you do, follow the abbreviation with a period.
We could use either of these options for our source:
13 January 2016,
13 Jan. 2016,
The source’s location tells the reader where to find the source. Many sources will not have a location, but it should be listed if present.
- If using a book, the page number is the location.
- For single pages, use this format: p. 6.
- For two or more pages, list like this: pp. 62-4 or pp. 184-96.
- If using two or more pages and they cross a “hundred” marker, list like this: pp. 456-502.
- With web pages, give the URL—but omit the http:// at the beginning.
- If a doi (digital object indicator) number is available, use that instead of a URL.
- Do not break URLs or doi’s manually to try and fit them into your Works Cited: just type them in and let your Word processor decide where to break them.
- If you have a different kind of source and believe you have a location with it, share it as best you can, following these guidelines.
- Locations are in plain font and followed by a period.
Here’s what you would have for line 9:
Now, to create a Works Cited citation, link all of the available elements together, following the correct punctuation and placing a space between each component.
- Use your word processor’s menus to set hanging paragraphs
- Don’t break your lines manually: set hanging paragraphs and then keep typing, allowing the software to determine the line breaks.
- Your citation should always end with a period.
Here’s what the final citation would include:
Sebenius, Alyza. “The Importance of High School Mentors.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 13 Jan. 2016, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/mentorship-in-public-schools/423945/.
And here’s what it will look like on the Works Cited page with double spacing and hanging paragraphs:
Check Your Understanding: Creating Citations
Create a Works Cited citation for this story from the Los Angeles Times (found at latimes.com): “Inside the Deal that Brought Sony’s ‘Spider-Man’ Back to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.”
See the Appendix, Results for the “Check Your Understanding” Activities, for answers.
- Consult the on the .
- Consult the MLA Style Page from the UNC Writing Site.
- Consult the MLA Style Page from the Purdue OWL Site.
- Consult this course handout on how to .
- Consult this BYU webpage on how to proper construct and MLA-formatted essay with proper citations.
- Consult this on how to construct your first essay.
- Watch the following YouTube video on how to properly use MLA format.
- Watch the following YouTube video on how to properly format in text citation in MLA.
- Watch the following YouTube videos: here and here, on how to use
- Watch the following YouTube video on how to
- Consult this SAMPLE STUDENT ESSAY for tips on the whole process!
On the MLA Style Guides site there is a section called “Citation Builders” which will help put sources into proper format for you. Note also that in most newer versions of Microsoft Word there is an MLA template you can select to automatically put your document into MLA format.
Sources taken from the MHCC Library Databases will already be listed at the bottom of the article in MLA format. Simply copy and paste the citation from the database entry to your Works Cited page (making sure the entry is: in proper alphabetical position, bold type, double-spaced, and in proper “hanging” format”).
Lastly, although most essays in Writing and Humanities classes will be formatted according to the Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines, many other classes will use alternative formats such as APA, Chicago and ASA documentation styles. Use this course link to assist in the construction of these alternative formats.
As always, when in doubt…reach out!
(adapted, in part, from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. This OER text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.)