MLA format is one of many core citation styles used in academic and professional writing.
It’s used to cite external sources in written, academic work, including essays and research projects. This article will guide you on general MLA formatting guidelines and specific elements that must be included in a properly formatted MLA style paper.
MLA format: everything you need to know
Before going further, let's clarify what MLA format actually is.
MLA format is an academic style guide created by the Modern Language Association. It is most commonly used for literary research, academic essays, and humanities-based disciplines.
When you’re directed to use MLA format for your written work, it’s important to know the subcomponents of formatting and how to do them correctly. Citing your sources is a crucial component of essay and research-based writing and is the only way to avoid plagiarism.
Below are instructions and examples for formatting general components of an MLA formatted paper, including how to write a header, an in-text citation, and a Works Cited page.
General formatting guidelines in MLA
- Your document should be typed in double-space, 12 pt. font. The standard font is Times New Roman.
- Limit or completely avoid bolding text or italicizing for emphasis as italics are used for book titles and other longer works.
- There should only be one space after all marks of punctuation. Because word processing software already accounts for the space after a punctuation mark, adding two spaces is antiquated and inaccurate.
- Your document’s margins should be one inch on all sides.
- If you are writing an essay or some type of researched content that has a title, your title should be original (unless otherwise specified), centered, and not bolded. If your title includes the title of a book or article, format those titles as needed (italics, quotation marks).
- The title should be in title case; every word should not be capitalized.
- Your first and subsequent paragraphs should be indented one half inch from the left of the document. You should use the TAB button function to indent rather than the space bar.
- Include a header and your name and the page number at the top of your document.
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How to format a header in MLA
The rules for headers MLA format are as follows, but may differ depending on your instructor’s (or boss’) preference.
All headers begin at the top of your document, flush left with double-spaced text.
Date (in Day Month Year order)
Above is the general format for a header in MLA, but here's a more specific example to put things in perspective:
19 July 2019
You should also include your last name and the page number in the upper-right hand corner of your document.
How to format an in-text citation in MLA
MLA in-text reference formatting is done via parenthetical citations and is the same regardless of container (e.g. book or article). Citations should go at the end of a sentence before the period, whether you are paraphrasing or citing a direct quote.
MLA format follows the author-page style: (Last Name Page Number) and does not use a comma between them. You are to use the author’s last name and list the page or number of pages referenced in a given section.
He noted that the little boy who wore “the yellow slicker was George Denbrough,” which we discovered was Bill’s younger brother (King 3).
The sentence above is an example of an excerpt from an essay about Stephen King’s novel, It. The information in the in-text parenthetical citation indicates who the author is and where the quote comes from: (King 3).
In-text citations must include an author’s last name and the page number; however, the author’s last name does not necessarily have to go inside of the parentheses. The page number, on the other hand, must.
King notes that George Denbrough was the boy who wore “the yellow slicker” and that he was Bill’s younger brother (3).
If referencing only one work throughout your essay, you can simply use numeric references if the author of your source material and the source material itself is the same throughout. Based on our example, that means if you were writing an essay solely about It, you could reference Stephen King by name just once and then use numbers to reference specific pages thereafter.
However, if you are referencing multiple works by the same author (e.g. It and Carrie by King) or multiple works by various authors (e.g. It by King and Twilight by Stephenie Meyer), you must always include the author’s last name and the page number in your in-text citations. That way there is no confusion about which quotation(s) came from which source material.
How to format a Works Cited page in MLA
An MLA-formatted Works Cited page houses all of your reference material that you used throughout your essay. Although there are many different types of source containers from which you may be quoting, we are highlighting the most common: books and periodicals, which include print and web articles, with examples of properly-formatted citations should look like.
For each container listed below, you will find a general formula for citing the source in your Works Cited page along with an example to put it in perspective.
Note: if at any time you cannot find one element of the “required” parts to include in your citation, you may omit it if you have exhausted all search options.
This means that if you absolutely cannot find the city in which a book was published (this applies to books written before 1900 only), then it is not necessary to include that information as long as all other information provided is formatted correctly and included.
The following citation examples cover books written by one author and two authors.
Books by one author
This is the simplest and most common citation type you will encounter for standard books.
General citation formula for a book with one author:
Last Name, First Name. Title of Book. Publisher, Publication Date.
King, Stephen. It. Viking Press, 15 September 1986.
Books by two authors
This format will only be used if two authors are listed as contributors for one book. The authors’ names should be written in the order they are listed in the book. Whichever author comes first, their name will be formatted in Last Name, First name format. The second author’s name will be in First Name, Last Name (standard) format.
General citation formula for a book with two authors:
Last Name, First Name and First Name Last Name. Title of Book. Publisher, Publication Date.
King, Stephen and Peter Straub. The Talisman. Viking Press, 8 November 1984.
Periodicals and electronic sources (articles, print and web)
Periodicals include articles from either web or print sources, though the former is more common in present day. Note: only include pages if you are quoting from a multi-page source. If your source is based online, you may omit the “pages” requirement.
General citation formula for a periodical:
Author(s). "Title of Article." Title of Periodical, Day Month Year, pages.
Moeslein, Anna. “Why Blake Lively Has Been Wearing So Many Suits Lately: An Investigation.” Glamour, 14 September 2018.
As an aside, some instructors want you to include the site from which you took your source citation. If that is the case, your citation would be formatted like this:
Moeslein, Anna. “Why Blake Lively Has Been Wearing So Many Suits Lately: An Investigation.” Glamour, 14 September 2018, https://www.glamour.com/story/why-blake-lively-has-been-wearing-suits-a-simple-favor. Accessed 19 July 2019.
As you can see, we have included the webpage link as well as the date we accessed the content.
Note: Month names can be abbreviated (e.g. Sept. for September) or written out in full; it doesn't change meaning or intent. Months are often abbreviated when the citation is excessively lengthy.
Whichever you choose to use, make sure you keep it consistent throughout your Works Cited page.
More to MLA than meets the eye
Although this guide is not exhaustive with every single possible citation formula in MLA that currently exists (8th edition), it provides a comprehensive background on the most common subtypes of MLA citations you are bound to encounter.
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