What Is the MLA Citation Format?

The MLA, or Modern Language Association, format is the preferred style for citing material in liberal arts and humanities documents. Its counterpart is the APA style system, which is mainly used for scientific and technical writing. Summarized by the books "MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers" and "MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing," the MLA style provides guidelines for formatting parenthetical citations, the "Works Cited" page and endnotes.

Parenthetical Citations

MLA style states that credit to other authors for their ideas should be expressed via parenthetical citations, commonly referred to as "in-text" citations. The MLA formatting guidelines for parenthetical citations state that a set of parentheses should immediately follow any direct quotations from other authors and/or paraphrasing of their ideas. The parentheses should contain the author's last name, followed by a space and the page number from the source material on which the reader can find the cited information.

If a work that is being cited does not have a known author, writers should use an abbreviated version of the work's title in place of an author name. For short works the abbreviated titles should be placed in quotation marks, while long works require an italicized or underlined title. Writers citing more than one source in one parenthetical reference should place a semi-colon between each citation within the parentheses.

Works Cited

Each parenthetical citation should correspond to an item in the "Works Cited" page at the end of the document. Each entry should first list the author's last name, followed by a comma and the author's first name. The underlined title of the book should be provided next, followed by a period. The last part of the entry should list the city of publication, followed by a colon, the publisher's name and publication year. The entries should be listed in alphabetical order and double spaced.

When to Use Citations

According to the MLA format, writers should use common sense and ethics when deciding whether a given piece of information requires a citation. Proverbs, famous quotations and information considered to be common knowledge need not be cited, according to the MLA style. However, writers should also consider their target audience when deciding whether or not to cite material, as not all audiences and communities will view the same information as being common knowledge.


The MLA citation format encourages writers to use endnotes for adding brief information that digresses from the subject, but may be helpful to the reader. Examples include pointing out a particularly helpful section of one of the bibliographic sources used in the document. Footnotes should be listed on a separate page called "Notes," which should come before the "Works Cited" page. The notes should be listed in chronological order by superscript Arabic numbers, with two lines of space between each note.


The advantages of using the MLA citation format are several. Firstly, the format's consistency allows both the writer and readers to easily locate information. Secondly, giving due credit to other author's gives a writer's work credibility by holding him accountable. Finally, MLA style citations help ensure that writers do not get wrongfully accused of plagiarism-suspected use of other author's ideas without attributing credit.