MLA General Format
MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities. This resource, updated to reflect the MLA Handbook (8th ed.), offers examples for the general format of MLA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the Works Cited page.
Contributors: Tony Russell, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Russell Keck, Joshua M. Paiz, Michelle Campbell, Rodrigo Rodríguez-Fuentes, Daniel P. Kenzie, Susan Wegener, Maryam Ghafoor, Purdue OWL Staff
Last Edited: 2016-08-11 04:27:59
MLA style specifies guidelines for formatting manuscripts and using the English language in writing. MLA style also provides writers with a system for referencing their sources through parenthetical citation in their essays and Works Cited pages.
Writers who properly use MLA also build their credibility by demonstrating accountability to their source material. Most importantly, the use of MLA style can protect writers from accusations of plagiarism, which is the purposeful or accidental uncredited use of source material by other writers.
If you are asked to use MLA format, be sure to consult the MLA Handbook (8th edition). Publishing scholars and graduate students should also consult the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd edition). The MLA Handbook is available in most writing centers and reference libraries; it is also widely available in bookstores, libraries, and at the MLA web site. See the Additional Resources section of this handout for a list of helpful books and sites about using MLA style.
The preparation of papers and manuscripts in MLA style is covered in chapter four of the MLA Handbook, and chapter four of the MLA Style Manual. Below are some basic guidelines for formatting a paper in MLA style.
- Type your paper on a computer and print it out on standard, white 8.5 x 11-inch paper.
- Double-space the text of your paper, and use a legible font (e.g. Times New Roman). Whatever font you choose, MLA recommends that the regular and italics type styles contrast enough that they are recognizable one from another. The font size should be 12 pt.
- Leave only one space after periods or other punctuation marks (unless otherwise instructed by your instructor).
- Set the margins of your document to 1 inch on all sides.
- Indent the first line of paragraphs one half-inch from the left margin. MLA recommends that you use the Tab key as opposed to pushing the Space Bar five times.
- Create a header that numbers all pages consecutively in the upper right-hand corner, one-half inch from the top and flush with the right margin. (Note: Your instructor may ask that you omit the number on your first page. Always follow your instructor's guidelines.)
- Use italics throughout your essay for the titles of longer works and, only when absolutely necessary, providing emphasis.
- If you have any endnotes, include them on a separate page before your Works Cited page. Entitle the section Notes (centered, unformatted).
Formatting the First Page of Your Paper
- Do not make a title page for your paper unless specifically requested.
- In the upper left-hand corner of the first page, list your name, your instructor's name, the course, and the date. Again, be sure to use double-spaced text.
- Double space again and center the title. Do not underline, italicize, or place your title in quotation marks; write the title in Title Case (standard capitalization), not in all capital letters.
- Use quotation marks and/or italics when referring to other works in your title, just as you would in your text: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Morality Play; Human Weariness in "After Apple Picking"
- Double space between the title and the first line of the text.
- Create a header in the upper right-hand corner that includes your last name, followed by a space with a page number; number all pages consecutively with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), one-half inch from the top and flush with the right margin. (Note: Your instructor or other readers may ask that you omit last name/page number header on your first page. Always follow instructor guidelines.)
Here is a sample of the first page of a paper in MLA style:
Image Caption: The First Page of an MLA Paper
Writers sometimes use Section Headings to improve a document’s readability. These sections may include individual chapters or other named parts of a book or essay.
MLA recommends that when you divide an essay into sections that you number those sections with an arabic number and a period followed by a space and the section name.
1. Early Writings
2. The London Years
3. Traveling the Continent
4. Final Years
MLA does not have a prescribed system of headings for books (for more information on headings, please see page 146 in the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition). If you are only using one level of headings, meaning that all of the sections are distinct and parallel and have no additional sections that fit within them, MLA recommends that these sections resemble one another grammatically. For instance, if your headings are typically short phrases, make all of the headings short phrases (and not, for example, full sentences). Otherwise, the formatting is up to you. It should, however, be consistent throughout the document.
If you employ multiple levels of headings (some of your sections have sections within sections), you may want to provide a key of your chosen level headings and their formatting to your instructor or editor.
Sample Section Headings
The following sample headings are meant to be used only as a reference. You may employ whatever system of formatting that works best for you so long as it remains consistent throughout the document.
1. Soil Conservation
2. Water Conservation
3. Energy Conservation
Level 1 Heading: bold, flush left
Level 2 Heading: italics, flush left
Level 3 Heading: centered, bold
Level 4 Heading: centered, italics
Level 5 Heading: underlined, flush left
- The body paragraphs are where you present your paper’s main points.
- Your body paragraphs should contain ample textual evidence, be correctly formatted, and have seamless transitions.
The body is the meat and potatoes of your essay. As such, it needs to contain lots of juicy textual evidence and meaty support, not fluff.
Each body paragraph contains one main idea, backed up by textual evidence and your own analysis. Your analysis should make up the majority of your paragraph.
Remember that (unless your teacher specifically says so), there’s nothing magic about having three body paragraphs. Have as many as you need to get your ideas across. The topic sentences of your body paragraphs should be determined by how you grouped your notes when you were outlining.
With your outline in hand, it’s time to draft your essay.
1) What makes a good quote
- The best quotes contain in-depth analysis, opinion, or interpretation, not facts.
When choosing quotes to put in your final paper, keep in mind that some information works better in quote form and some is better as an indirect quote (paraphrased).
Take the following example: According to the CIA Factbook, “all of China falls within one time zone” (CIA Factbook).
How exciting of a quote is that? Not very.
The best quotes contain analysis, opinion, or interpretation. When quoting directly from a source, be sure that the quote is interesting. Take the following example:
According to Lina Song, a professor of economic sociology and social policy at the University of Nottingham, “Local government debt in China is a time bomb waiting to go off” (A Time Bomb, NY Times). In China, local government debt has swelled to 14 trillion yuan (People’s Bank of China).
The opinion part–that local debts in China are a time bomb–is a direct quotation from a credible source (a professor). This makes a good quote since her opinion paints an interesting picture of China’s current economic situation. The fact–that debt is now 14 trillion yuan–is not quoted, since it would be a boring quote. But it does provide substantial factual support to Song’s opinion.
When looking for quotes, look for the most concise parts of the text that explain the author’s points. You don’t want to devote too much of your paper’s length to quoting from your sources.
Try to embed quotes into your writing smoothly by placing them in a sentence of your own, rather than just plopping them in your paper. These ‘lead up’ sentences should contain transitions that give your reader the context behind the quote.
2) Making good points
- Good points follow a formula: introduction of evidence + evidence + analysis.
- The above structure can be modified based on the paper you are writing.
- They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing – Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
Your paper should contain a number of points that make your argument. These points should be substantiated by data–either in the form of direct quotes or paraphrasing. Good points are usually written with the following framework: introduction of evidence + evidence + analysis.
Let’s break down each part:
Introduction of evidence
– The first part of your point should be a sentence or two that transitions into your quote and explains the topic your quote addresses. Why are you citing this particular evidence? What is the quote adding to your paper?
For humanities papers, you’ll probably be introducing the work you’re analyzing at the beginning (introductory paragraph) of your essay. Therefore, when you bring up quotes, your ‘introduction of evidence’ will usually contain a transition saying how your quote relates to the rest of your paper.
“Another example of Healthcliff’s indifference is seen in…”
“Also, Rowling uses scenic detail to add drama to the book. For example…”
“Finally, Venus’ frustration comes to a crescendo when the goddess…”
Notice how each of these examples contains transition words that prepare the reader to hear the quote.
For social science papers and research papers, you’ll probably be using a lot of sources for support, and as such, you’ll want to introduce each before you quote directly from it. When you bring up a source for the first time, you will want to state its credentials to demonstrate that you are citing an authoritative source (and not just a random person).
“Further insight into income inequality is provided by Dr. Delaney, an economist at Stanford, who is of the opinion that…” “Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, writes that our preconceived notions influence our perceptions…”
Keep in mind that if you are paraphrasing from a source, it may not be necessary to introduce it. Use your own discretion.
Example: It sounds funny to say, “The CIA World Factbook, an authority on world statistics, states that “Mali is a landlocked country highly dependent on gold mining and agricultural exports for revenue” (CIA World Factbook).
Instead, you can just weave the facts about Mali into your essay and provide a parenthetical citation for the Factbook.
– Here is where you substantiate your claim with a direct quote or text that is paraphrased. If you are quoting, be sure to transcribe from your source exactly, word-for-word. If you are paraphrasing, be sure you are doing the citations properly (See our guide to Parenthetical Citations).
– It is important that your evidence isn’t just plopped in your paper. The quote’s relevance to the rest of your paper may seem obvious to you, but you cannot assume that your reader will make the connection. You need to make it explicit. Your analysis should explain why the stated quote helps further an idea promoted in your essay.
“…This unique rhyming scheme, made famous by Shakespeare, makes the text lighthearted although the poem’s themes of love and timelessness are weighty.” “…The fearful closing lines juxtapose the cheery opening lines, heightening the reader’s sense of unease.”
“…Abraham Lincoln’s gracious words in this passage indicate his gratitude toward Americans and thankfulness to God.”
Keep in mind that the above formula can be modified to fit the flow of your paper. For example, if you are comparing two passages of text, you may want to quote them both first before analyzing them. Your analysis might be a discussion of the similarities/differences between the passages.
Let’s take a look at how this point-making formula works within a paper, provided by George Mason University’s Department of English:
|The opening lines of “The Cask of Amontillado” are cunningly crafted to both entice the reader and immediately situate the narrative: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged…” (123). With incredible economy we are presented with a troubled relationship between the narrator and Fortunato, which has reached its breaking point. It is also made clear that we are not the intended audience of this narrative. The “you” addressed knows the narrator well; we do not. This and the epistolary tone would suggest that we are looking upon some long forgotten piece of correspondence, which only heightens the atmosphere of mystery and dread already created by this sparse introduction.||Here the writer introduces the work, “The Case of Amontillado” and provides a topic sentence. We know what to expect: a discussion on how the opening lines of the text grab the reader and set up the rest of the work. |
The quote is presented. It is cited correctly.
Here, the writer analyzes the the quote. He discusses how the troubled relationship between two people helps frame the book. Notice how he’s building this using this textual evidence to support his topic sentence.
But the writer goes further. He analyzes how details in the text grab the reader through use of literary technique. We are told that this adds to the “atmosphere of mystery and dread” of the short story.
E. 3) Formatting quotes and parenthetical citations MLA/APA
- Format your quotes properly, and cite them correctly.
You have done a lot of hard work gathering your sources and selecting quotes. You want to make sure that your quotes are beautifully integrated into your paper. You want the text of the quote to be formatted correctly, and you want your citations to be correct. For that, check out our site for Parenthetical Citations
- Transitions provide links between ideas of your paper.
Transitions are key to a kick-butt paper. They provide the connections between the major ideas in your paper, and they give the reader cues to tell him where you are going. Remember (from when you researched and outlined) that your transitions should reflect how your notes are grouped. Now is the time to forge your transitions into words!
There should be a transition between each paragraph of the paper that introduces what the new paragraph is about and how it relates to the previous one. An effective way to transition is by using the following format: clause that references the claim in the previous paragraph (making a smooth transition between one claim and the next) + comma + topic sentence of next paragraph:
- “In contrast to Marsha’s heartfelt feelings toward her sister in the first half of the book, in the second half they dissolve, only to be replaced by anger…”
Here the words “in contrast” tell the reader that the text after the comma will be in juxtaposition to the text in front of the comma. Marsha’s relationship with her sister has changed, and this transition cues the reader that the next paragraph will be about anger in their relationship.
- “Similar to how Tom dealt with the dragon the first time, he…”
The words “similar to” indicate that Tom handled the dragon using the same technique twice Here, the reader is prepared to learn about how Tom dealt with the dragon the second time around, and how that was similar to the first time.
- “Despite all that Tony did for Robin, she…”
“Despite” indicates that there will be a shift in the second part of the sentence. The reader is prepared to hear about how Robin verbally abused Tom (or some other negative action) in the latter paragraph despite the fact that Tony did a lot for her.
Transitions should be used within paragraphs too. They help lead your reader down your intended path. Here’s a list of useful transitions (provided by UNC):
Here are a couple examples:
- “Jay Gatsby spares no expense at his extravagant Saturday night parties, as seen when…”
Here, the phrase “as seen when” transitions your reader from your statement at the beginning of the sentence to a quote that will fit nicely at the end.
- Steven’s behavior towards his family members is generally affable, but he treats only his parents with utmost respect.
Here, the use of the world “but” indicates that the second half of the sentence will modify the first half. In this example, “but” helps the author refine the argument. Steven doesn’t treat everyone in his as best as he can. He treats his parents with his best behavior.
Tip: The transitions can also be used to transition between paragraphs.
5) Avoiding plagiarism
- Make sure that the sources you cite in your paper are quoted or paraphrased correctly.
- Don’t have too much of your paper’s text be from a source other than yourself.
Your essay should be well supported with credible sources, but you don’t want too much of your paper to be written by another person. Your teacher wants to hear your own insight. The sources you reference in your paper should be cited correctly (paraphrased or directly quoted). If an idea is not your own, don’t take credit for it!
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary plagiarizing means to:
- Steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own
- Use another’s production without crediting the source
- Commit literary theft
- Present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source
All of the following are considered plagiarism:
- Turning in someone else’s work as your own
- Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
- Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
- Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
- Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
- Copying so many ideas or words from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not