MLA is probably the style you are most familiar with since most high schools require you to cite sources in a research paper in MLA. It’s where you must have the last name and the page number in the text: (Name #). Now, if you aren’t familiar with it, that’s fine; you have to take EN 100 and 140—you’ll learn.

MLA stands for the Modern Language Association and, after more than a hundred years, is now one of the largest scholarly organizations out there.1 Though it was originally created for the study and teaching of language and literature, its style is widely used in academia, especially in the humanities. If you end up in the sciences, you won’t be using this as often, but it’s still good to know for any university studies courses that may require it.

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers

You’ve probably avoided the actual MLA manual in favor of those pocket manuals that 20140807_114225just show the citation examples, which is fine if you only need to look up a single citation. The MLA Handbook offers a lot more than simply citations, though. As the title suggests, it has everything you need to write a research paper from start to finish. If you’ve never written a research paper and don’t know where to start, the MLA Handbook can help.

In addition to tips on writing and finding sources, it also explains about plagiarism and the mechanics of writing according to their style. This includes spellings and usage of words, when to use quotation marks or italics, capitalization rules for names, how to use foreign words, abbreviations, etc.

Most of these rules are consistent with what you know since all styles follow grammar conventions; however, if you’re not sure, go ahead and look it up. The different styles stress different things. Being used in the humanities, MLA has far more rules about how to quote a book, a play, a poem, than APA, which focuses on the sciences.

Formatting a Paper

If you’re not worried about all the nitpicky details and are thinking all you need to worry about is the citations, think again. If you pay attention to nothing else in this book, pay attention to the formatting rules. Nothing makes a paper appear less put together and the writer lazy than 16 pt font in Comic Sans with margins so wide the paper looks like a ten-page epic poem. Just . . . don’t.

MLA gives very straightforward guidelines on how to format your paper properly. If you don’t have access to the MLA Handbook or a pocket manual, you can see how to do it at our Online Writing Lab where we have step-by-step tutorials on using Word and formatting your paper from header to works cited page.


I’m sure some of you just skipped on down to here, because for your classes this is the important bit. To those of you that did, I’d suggest going back up and checking out the other information when you’re done here.

As far as citations go, each style is a product of what it worries about most. Since MLA is used more in the humanities, it deals with scholarship that can be from this year or older than King Arthur’s court. Needless to say, it doesn’t care as much when it was made as it does what it is and who wrote it. So if you’re not sure something is APA or MLA, MLA is the one that is NOT author/date.

There are two forms of citations, internal and full references on the works cited page. Internal citations are very simple. They appear at the end of the sentence (before the period) and have the last name(s) of the author(s) followed by the page number: (Name #). That’s it! If you have a website with no page number you can either reference the paragraph if they are numbered or simply leave the page number off.2 If you use the name in the sentence, then you don’t need it in the citation.

The works cited citations provide the reader a way to find any sources that you used, should they want to go looking, and therefore should have enough information for them to easily do so. For a complete explanation of MLA citations, visit our MLA Style Guide, which has tutorials and an extensive list of citation examples to help you.

Here I’d just like to make note of a few things that I often see students doing wrong when they attempt to make their works cited page. Many of these problems come from outdated reference books or websites (or students using horrible citation generation software—do not trust them!)

  • Yes, it should be double spaced.
  • It needs a hanging indent. (Don’t know how? Visit our Word tutorial.)
  • No, it doesn’t need the URL at the end (unless the teacher asks for it).
  • Punctuation is important! Look and see whether you should be using a period or a comma or nothing at all between each part.
  • Nothing gets underlined anymore.
  • Alphabetize, don’t number.


1. MLA, “The MLA’s Mission,” MLA, last updated July 21, 2014,

2. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009), 220-1.