The Difference Between the APA & MLA Writing Formats

Modern Language Association, or MLA, and American Psychological Association, or APA, styles are two different styles used to format the written works generated in the fields of the humanities and the social sciences. While the two styles are similar -- both strive for the simplest and most streamlined way to transmit information to a reader -- they also have traits that set them apart.

Who Uses Each Format

MLA style was created by the Modern Language Association and is used primarily for writings about language and literature and is the go-to style for those studying or working in the humanities. APA style is intended to clarify and strengthen scientific writing. Organized by the American Psychological Association, APA style is used most often by those in the social science fields.


The difference between a paper written in MLA style and one written in APA style should be apparent to a reader almost immediately. A paper written in APA style will always have a title page, while those written in MLA style will only have a title page if it has been specifically requested. APA style also requires the inclusion of an abstract, a brief summary of the paper, while MLA does not. The main body of documents written in the two formats will look very similar, but they diverge again later on. In an MLA paper, the full list of references will be found on the "Works Cited" page at the back of the document. APA documents, on the other hand, will include a "References" page at the end.


While both styles require clear and detailed attribution of sources, referred to as citations, MLA and APA styles require a slightly different presentation of that data. In-text or parenthetical citations are brief references directing the reader to the full source list appended to the end of the paper. In MLA style, in-text citations will include the author's last name and the specific page number in the document that is being referred to. In APA, the citation will include the author's last name and the year of publication for the work in question. Additionally, the format of quoted source text differs between the two styles. In MLA style, quotations that are more than four lines long are set off by indenting 10 spaces; in APA, quotes longer than 40 words are indented five spaces.

Visual Aids

APA style makes a specific call for visual aids, where MLA style does not. The APA claims its style is intended to spotlight ideas and not the manner of presentation. Such graphical elements, which may distract from the main body of the text, are attached as appendices at the end of the document. Examples of APA appendix topics are word lists and detailed research descriptions, including mathematical proofs and research questionnaires.