What is MLA Formatting

Written by Haley Boyce

what is mla format

What is MLA Format? Aaron Marshall Elliot is the man you can thank for founding the Modern Language Association of America, commonly known as the Modern Language Association or MLA. In 1883, Marshall began the organization as a group focused on the discussion and advocacy of literature and modern language. In other words, any language that isn’t a classical one like Latin or Greek. 

The Modern Language Association is a member of the American Council of Learned Societies, or ACLS, which defines the MLA as an organization that fosters learning and teaching languages and literatures via its programs and publications.

The MLA is the big kahuna of academic language.

Where other styles (AP, Chicago, APA) focus on every single minute detail of formatting a paper, MLA focuses on paper formatting within the realm of its purpose in the greater scheme of the humanities. This broad scope includes literature, language, writing studies, screen arts, digital humanities, pedagogy (how something is taught), and library studies.

According to their own website, the organization is constantly evolving through its studies of eras, geography, genres, languages, and areas of discipline in higher education that focus on both communication and aesthetic production as well as reception, translation, and interpretation.

Okay, so why should this matter to you? It basically means that, as a student and writer of academic papers, you can trust the MLA (and its format) as one of the premier organizations known and trusted for its standards.

In other words: There are solid reasons to adhere to the MLA style of writing when instructed to do so. It’s all because of the need for clear communication across content areas. 

What is MLA Format for an Essay?

working at cafeIt sounds more intimidating than it actually is, we promise. MLA style is a way to cite (show) your sources in a paper. More often than not, this is something that will be found in an academic essay across subjects that fall under the humanities umbrella. Styles are typically subject-specific (Chicago and AP styles are for journalism, APA style for research papers with quantifiable evidence), so it might be obvious which style you should use when citing your sources. But if it isn’t, ask your instructor. They’ll be glad you asked. 

What is MLA Citation?

A works cited page is where you document all the sources you used while researching the topic of your paper. There have been strict rules about how to provide this information over the years, but the most recent iteration of the process is based on the type of paper you’re writing rather than the type of source you used.

This is the type of flexibility that makes MLA style applicable to all genres and content areas.

To format a source on a works cited page, adhere to the specific MLA citation guidelines covering:

      • Book titles should be italicized.
      • Individual web pages should be in quotation marks.
      • A periodical (magazine, journal, newspaper, or anything else published periodically) should be in quotation marks.
      • A song or piece of music on an album should be in quotation marks.
      • The title of the container should be italicized and followed by a comma.

Decisions, Decisions

choiceMLA is the cool aunt in the Style family who loves her kin but needs to have room to pave her own way in life. One of the reasons MLA style is able to apply to so many areas of study is because it allows for options. Here are some considerations to keep in mind when citing sources that are completely optional.

  • Original publication date
  • City of publication
  • Date of access (if your resource is a website)
  • URLS: Even though the MLA Handbook recommends including URLs when citing a website, it’s really up to your instructor if they’d prefer this detail.
  • Digital Object Identifier (or DOI): This is a series of digits and letters in online journal articles that work like coordinates to bring someone to the location of the online source. This is helpful, as it assures the source is findable even if the web address changes.
  • Embedded citations: The MLA Handbook is now in its 9th edition, but embedded citations are one of the elements that has been held onto in the 9th and most recent edition. A stage two clinger. This is a brief introduction of your resource and often precedes a direct quote. 

Be clear about your sources.

      • A publisher does need to be included when they are important to the source becoming what it is. 
      • If there is more than one publisher, list them in your works cited page, separated by a forward slash ( / ) rather than a comma. 
      • It should be noted that publication dates do not only accompany written works. Television shows and other works of art (paintings, photographs, sculptures just to name a few) all count and should be cited according to the date they were published. 
      • When citing a book, include the page number.
      • When citing a website, include the complete web address (copying and pasting the entire URL is sufficient). Be sure to use the link that will lead the reader to the exact page where your source was found. 
      • If you are referencing something you saw in person, like a painting in a museum, cite the name of the museum and city where you saw it. 
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