If you are a student of literature or humanities, you may come across the MLA style of citation. What is it and how do you actually use it to cite your sources? That’s what we’re about to find out. This article will help you understand the rules and conventions of the MLA style of citation. 

What is MLA format?

The MLA format is the citation style devised by the Modern Language Association, primarily used in academic writing in the humanities and liberal arts, particularly in disciplines like philosophy, literature, language, etc. 

While there are other citation styles such as the Chicago Manual of Style and APA, your professors may ask you to adhere to this specific style in your papers. 

The MLA handbook is currently in its 8th edition (as of 2016) and lists formatting guidelines and provides rules for two types of citations: in-text citations and a ‘Works Cited’ page at the end of the paper. The in-text citations are brief, with the author’s name and the page number. Citations on the Works Cited page are more extensive and give full information about the source.

The purpose of citations (besides avoiding plagiarism) is to document the sources you are using to build your research paper. While it may seem like a mundane list to some, it is in fact greatly useful in shedding light on the background research you’ve done to arrive at your argument or thesis statement.

 

What’s different in the 8th edition? 

In earlier editions, the MLA handbook had specific sets of guidelines for citing each type of source. This means that if a researcher wants to cite a book and a film, they would have to refer to the handbook for unique instructions for each. The 8th edition eliminates this hurdle to accommodate emerging forms of published content, including online resources and electronic forms of mass media. It specifies a general set of principles that scholars need to adhere to, followed by examples of various kinds of sources. 

In-text citations in MLA

An in-text citation is included in the body of your text, immediately after you refer to, paraphrase, or quote an external source. The MLA format follows the author-page system of in-text citations. 

An in-text citation is typically written inside a parenthesis and looks something like this: 

When you write, make sure that your reader always knows who is speaking (Strunk 72).

This is generally known as a parenthetical citation. 

There is also the narrative in-text citation, used if you have already referred to the author within the body of the paper. This means that you’ll only have to include the page number in the parenthesis. It looks like this: 

Strunk emphasizes on the need for writers to indicate who is speaking (72).

 

Works Cited section 

A paper formatted in the MLA style also includes a “Works Cited” page after the body text. It is a list of all the sources you have referred to throughout the paper. Each entry in this list must correspond to an in-text citation. 

 

Elements of an entry in the Works Cited section: 

You’ll notice that each entry in the Works Cited list contains a particular set of information about the source and is written in a specific order.

Every citation must have the following information: 

Author name(s). “Title of the source.” Title of the container, other contributors, version, number, publisher, publication date, location.

Let us deconstruct the elements of an MLA citation one by one.

Author

An ‘author’ refers to the person or persons who are the creators of the sources. It is the first element of an MLA citation. You can use the table given below to see how authors’ names are listed in the Works Cited section. 

 

No. of authors  Works Cited Format Example
1 Last name, First name.  Hume, Cecelia M. 
2 Last name, First name, and First name Last name.  Hume, Cecelia M., and Iris Scott.
3 or more  Last name, First name, et al.  Hume, Cecilia M, et al.

 

When you’re including sources with two or more authors, list the authors in the same order as shown on the source. 

If a source does not have a known author, simply start with the next element, the title. 

Title of source

The title of the source material is the second element of an MLA citation. As the name suggests, it is the title of the source you are referring to in your paper. 

  • If your source is a book, italicize the name. 
  • The names of all other sources (including web pages, media formats, journal articles, etc.) is included within quotation marks. 
  • The quotations rule applies to any source that is a part of a larger item, for example: a song in an album or a journal article in a periodical. 

Title of container
  • The 8th edition of the MLA handbook requires you to include a “container”, which is the larger body of source material that the source you cite is in. 
  • For example, if you are citing an essay in an anthology, you will list the individual essay as a source and the anthology as a container. 
  • The title of a container is italicized, and is followed by a comma. 

 

Barthes, Roland. “The Romans in Film.” Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers, Vintage Classics, 2009, pp. 15–18. 

 

Examples of containers

  • A book is a container for an essay, poem, cited chapter, etc. 
  • A TV series is a container for a specific episode 
  • A website is a container for a specific page within it. 
  • A journal/periodical/magazine is a container for a specific article. 

 

Other contributors

These include people who, other than the ones you have cited already, you recognize as important contributors to the piece. This is where you’d include editors and translators. 

Barthes, Roland. “The Romans in Film.” Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers, Vintage Classics, 2009, pp. 15–18. 

Version

A source may often have a version. Books have different editions, and films, songs, and television shows may have different versions as well. If this is the case, include the version or edition of your source as part of the citation. 

 

Scott, Ridley, director. Blade Runner. Warner Bros., 1992. 

 


Number

If the source is a part of a larger series or numbered sequence, then you must include the serial number or volume of the text. 

“Remedial Chaos Theory.” Community, created by Dan Harmon, season 3, episode 4, Krasnoff Foster Productions and Universal Media Studios, 2011.

 

Publisher

Include the publisher of the source in your entry. A publisher is someone or an entity that puts the source material out for public use. Note that this section will not include information about the distributor of your source, such as Netflix, JSTOR, etc. 

 

Publication date

If your source mentions a publication date, include that information in your entry as well. Maintain the format and information as mentioned in the source. 

You may include years, specific dates, or even date ranges. 

 

Location

If the location of publication is important for your source, include that as well. You’ll often find yourself doing this for books, as the location often reflects the language of the content itself. 

 

Frequently asked questions about MLA 

What happens when I’m missing parts of the citation? 

If you’re missing parts of the citation, simply omit that section and move on to the next. Since you’re using the same format for a myriad of types of sources, you’ll often find that the information you provide for each differs. 

Here’s a concise guide for missing out important information: 

  • If there’s no source author, start with the source title. 
  • If there’s no title, provide a brief description of the source. (1 line) 
  • If there’s no publication date, provide the date on which you accessed the source. 

In what order do I list the sources in the Works Cited section?

The Works Cited section is listed alphabetically by the last name of the authors. When you include sources without authors, alphabetize by the first word excluding articles (a, an, the). 

How do I generate MLA citations? 

If you find it too tedious to compile each source on your own, there are many online generators you can use to curate the Works Cited section. Here are a few options for you to pick from. 

How many editions of the MLA handbook are there? 

The MLA handbook is currently in its 8th edition. The 9th edition will be released in April 2021


See also:

  1. Editing and Proofreading Academic Articles: A Short Guide
  2. An Introduction to Citations 
  3. The Only Dissertation Toolkit You’ll Need 
  4. The Final Dissertation Checklist