MLA Formatting Style Explained

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Mla formatting style writing guide

What Is MLA?

MLA is a formatting style created by Modern Language Association. It is used to format papers and cite sources, especially when the text concerns humanities and liberal arts. The style prescribes how the paper should look like and how sources should be referenced on the Works Cited page and cited within the text using parenthetical in-text citations, footnotes, or endnotes. Furthermore, it provides explanations on how certain standards of English, as well as those of academic writing, should be followed and applied.

All this information, in addition to numerous examples of references, may be found in MLA Handbook. There are many editions of this guide, but students should use the latest one, which is the eighth. Graduate students and scholars, who are going to make a publication, should, however, use the third edition of MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. Both handbooks are widely available online, can be bought at any bookstore, or just requested at the library and a writing center at your institution.

MLA is necessary to protect students and scholars from accusations of plagiarizing, which refers to the use of someone else’s intellectual property with either intentionally or unintentionally giving no credit to the author. If proper references are absent, it will lead to not only a lower grade or even a zero for an assignment but also a failure of the class, as well as expulsion from high school, university, or college. Remember that plagiarism is a grave offense that has serious repercussions. To avoid them, learn about MLA with us.

General Format

Before getting into details and peculiarities of MLA, you should get acquainted with its general guidelines. Here is what you should know at this point:

  • Use white paper sized 8 ½ x 11, which is a standard Letter paper format.
  • Ensure margins are the same at all sides of the paper and equal to 1 inch.
  • Use Times New Roman or Arial since they may be read easily.
  • Set the font of the 12th size.
  • Apply double-spacing to the entire paper, including the Works Cited page at the end.
  • Indent the first word in a paragraph by half an inch. Similarly, a blockquote, i.e., the one that is longer than three lines, should be indented by an inch from the left margin.
  • Do not add extra spaces after the period or any other punctuation mark at the end of the sentence unless it is specifically required by your professor.
  • Do not include a title page unless it is specifically requested by your professor. In MLA, a header is preferred. To create a correct header, you should:
    • Set a 1-inch margin at the top of the page and ensure that the text is to be left-flushed.
    • Put a cursor and type the necessary information in the following order: your name, the name of your professor, course title, and date of submission. Each piece of the information should be inserted in a new line.
    • The fifth line is the place for the title of the paper. It should be centered. It should not be bold, italicized, underlined, with all letters capitalized, or highlighted in any other way.
    • The only case when italics may be used is when a title contains words that generally should be italicized according to the rules of English, e.g., A Symbol of Road in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
    • Apply double spacing to all elements of the header.
    • Make sure there is no period at the end of the title (see fig. 1).

Other General Format Elements

In order to make your paper look nice and fully conform to MLA standards, you should take care of the following elements too.

MLA Format

Page numbers:

  • Put them in the upper right corner. The number should be situated exactly 1½ inch from the top and 1 inch from the right margin. The text should be right-flushed.
  • Nearby the page number, insert your last name, for example, Taylor 1 (see fig. 2).
  • Avoid putting “p.,” which stands for a page, near the page number.
  • Clarify whether the page number should be present on the first page since many professors do not like it and ask to delete it.
  • Try to make the procedure of putting the last name and page number automatic by changing the settings of your word processor.

Tables, graphs, and images:

  • Place any of these elements not far from the text to which they relate most of all.
  • Add a caption to all tables and figures used in the paper. In the case of a table:
    • Assign a number to the table and note it down using Arabic numerals.
    • Write “Table” and its number, e.g., Table 1. Press “Enter” to go to the next line and type in the title of the table.
    • Mind that this information should appear before the table, and the text must be left-flushed.
    • The title of the table should not be bold, italicized, underlined, with all letters capitalized, or highlighted in any other way.
    • Under the table, indicate the source from which it was retrieved and additional comments if there is a need. Signalize the reference with the word “Source” and a colon. Assign a letter to the note and write “Note” nearby, e.g., “a. Note,” and a colon.
    • Set double-spacing throughout the labels.
  • In the case of a figure, assign a number to it and write “Fig.,” e.g., “Fig.2.” Add a caption below the figure.
  • If the caption of the table or figure provides exhaustive information about the source and the latter is not cited in the text, there is no need to include this source in Works Cited.

Use of numerals:

MLA Handbook (8th ed.) suggests spelling out those numbers that are limited to one or two words, while the rest should be presented with the help of numeral. Thus, you should write “three,” “thirty-six,” “one million” but “567,” “4½,” “7.5.” Besides, pay attention to that:

  • Sentences should never start with a numeral. Even if short, the number should be spelled out then.
  • When referring to numbers in terms of division, do not spell out numbers, e.g., “In chapter 4 of the guide, it is explained…”
  • Before abbreviations, use numerals only, e.g., 1 oz.

Components of References

When it comes to sources, MLA envisages rules of citing in texts and referencing on the Works Cited page. The latter is the page(s) at the end of the paper with all sources read and cited in the course of writing a paper. All sources are listed in alphabetical order. With this in mind, remember that once you have decided to use a source in your essay, research paper, or dissertation, for example, you should collect the data about it to be able to cite and reference it easily later on. Here is what you should pay attention to:


Jot down the name of the author(s). It should be the last name, followed by a comma, first name, and additional initials if any, e.g., Brown, James J. If there are three or two authors, join their names with “and” and change the order of the last name and first name for the second and third contributors. Use “et al.” after the first author if there are more than three authors.


It always follows the author’s name. It should be capitalized. A title should be either italicized if it is a book, report, or another stand-alone source or in quotation marks if it is an article from the journal, magazine or newspaper, poem, or another part of some source. For instance:

  • Conan-Doyle, Arthur. “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
  • Rowling, Joanne K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.


If the source is a part of another source, as an article from a journal, magazine, or newspaper, its title should be followed with the name of its container, for example, the title of an anthology, collection, or website. It should be italicized, for example:

  • Conan-Doyle, Arthur. “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Strand Magazine.

Publishing data

The kind of publishing data needed for a certain reference depends on the nature of a source. If it is a book, you should indicate a publisher, a date of publication, and optionally a city of publication. It is an article in a journal, for instance, all you need is volume, number, date, and page range. If it an electronic source, be sure to include the date of publication, publisher, URL, and the date of access. For more details, check the examples below.

  • Rowling, Joanne K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Penguin Publishers, 2017.
  • Conan-Doyle, Arthur. “A Scandal in Bohemia: A Review.” Literary Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, 2000, pp. 101-12.
  • Johnson, Jessica. “How to Cite in MLA?” Help for Students, 2 Nov. 2010, [insert an URL here]. Accessed 2 Jan. 2018.

Other MLA Citation Examples

The best way to learn to use MLA quickly is to analyze examples of references. Apart from those presented above, you may take advantage of other examples below and make your Works Cited page look just perfect. So, check how to cite:

An edited book:

  • Format: Author’s Last Name, First Name, editor(s). A Title. Publisher, Year.
  • Example: Smith, Susan, and Katie James, editors. What is Astrophysics? Oxford University Press, 2015.

A book of edition other than the first one:

  • Format: Author’s Last Name, First Name. A Title. Edition, Publisher, Year.
  • Example: Smith, Susan, and Katie James What is Astrophysics? 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2015.

A newspaper article available online:

  • Format: Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Title of the Article.” Newspaper Title, Date of Publication, URL, Date of Access.
  • Example: Chelsea, Doris. “How to Handle Exam-Related Stress?” New York Times, 14 Apr. 2016, [insert an URL here]. Accessed 5 Dec. 2017.

A YouTube video:

  • Format: Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Title of the Video.” YouTube, uploaded by Screen name, Date of Publication, URL, Date of Access.
  • Example: Smith, Chris. “Stress and Ways to Reduce Its Level.” YouTube, uploaded by Chris2017, 4 May 2013, [insert an URL here]. Accessed 15 Sept. 2017.

MLA In-Text Citations

An in-text citation is a method to mention the author of the word in an essay or a research paper in a way that does not distract from reading and looks aesthetically nice. MLA offers using parenthetical in-text citations that contain an author’s name and the number of pages where an excerpt was taken from. Here is how in-text citations might be used:

After a paraphrase or a direct citation at the end of the sentence:

  • Example: The main reasons for a great influx of immigrants are climatic change as well as economic factors (Scott 215).

At the beginning of the sentence with a page number being presented at the end:

  • Example: According to Scott, the main reasons for a great influx of immigrants are climatic change as well as economic factors (215).

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