The acronym MLA stands for Modern Language Association. The MLA is a professional, international organization based in New York City, New York, U.S.A. Its stated purpose is to strengthen the study and teaching of language and literature. It also provides a way for people working in the humanities to format their documents and handle source materials (we call this “MLA style”), and it is the principal professional organization for the humanities field.
What are the humanities? They are the field of study concerned with human culture, including literature, history, art, music, religion, foreign languages, and philosophy. In contrast, the empiric disciplines are those concerned with subjects involving verification through data collections, measurement, observation and other techniques for verification. The empiric fields of study include the sciences, math, teaching, history, psychology, and others.
As mentioned above, MLA style helps us format our documents and handle source materials. The use of a consistent document format by everyone using MLA makes it possible for us to pick up an MLA-formatted paper and follow it easily, without having to figure out how it’s arranged. Likewise, the use of a consistent approach to handling sources helps a writer avoid plagiarism and also helps a reader follow the writer’s use of sources.
Modern Language Association style periodically undergoes revision to keep up with changes in writing and publishing. The most recent eighth edition of MLA came out in 2016. Here’s what the MLA organization had to say about “MLA 8”:
“The eighth edition of the MLA Handbook, published in 2016, rethinks documentation for an era of digital publication. The MLA now recommends a universal set of guidelines that writers can apply to any source and gives writers in all fields—from the sciences to the humanities—the tools to intuitively document sources” (“What’s New”).
As a college student studying writing, you’ll use MLA style to accomplish the following:
1. To format your documents using a consistent style.
MLA style is the “outfit” of our written documents in the humanities. Much like a football player wears a helmet and pads or a soccer player wears shin guards, our documents “wear” a certain style of formatting. We’ll discuss that more below.
2. To identify and manage source materials when you use them in your own writing.
This insures you use sources correctly in your own work and give credit to the person who owns and/or created the source material, both of which help you avoid plagiarism. It also allows others—who read and are interested in your work—to easily review and consult the sources you’ve used.
Using MLA to Format Your Documents
The following are the basic guidelines for setting up an MLA-formatted document. Your word processor will have menu controls to help you with these settings.
- Set side margins to 1” on left, right, top, and bottom.
- Set margins to 0.5” for header and footer.
- Use a standard* 12-point font throughout the document.
- Double-space throughout the document.
- Use a straight left edge and a “ragged” right edge.
- Indent paragraphs ½” (1 tab).
- Center a document title on page 1. Use plain 12-point font—do not bold, underline, or italicize.
- Create an upper left heading on page 1 only. This should include the following:
- Your name (first and last name)
- The teacher’s name
- The name of the class
- The date, in MLA style**
- Create an upper right header for all pages. This should include the following:
- Your last name
- An automatic page number
*Examples of standard fonts include Times, Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, and others. Avoid non-standard Microsoft fonts like Calibri and Cambria, typewriter fonts (Courier), and overly-casual fonts (Comic Sans and Papyrus).
**MLA date format is very specific: it includes, in this order, the day of month, month, and year.
For example, the day February 11 in the year 2016 would look like this: 11 February 2016.
Longer months can also be abbreviated, so it could also look like this: 11 Feb. 2016.
Note that there are no commas in an MLA-style date.
Use this format for your document heading and on your Works Cited list. When mentioning dates in your paper, use traditional format, i.e., “On February 11, 2016, I found the world’s best coffee shop.”
Why does MLA use this date format? When people in the U.S. write a date like this—2/11/16—we read it as February 11, 2016.
But guess what: most of the rest of the world would read that as November 2, 2016! (Yes, really! To avoid confusion, and because MLA is a format used internationally, MLA uses this unique date format.)
A Four-Step Process for Working with Sources
- Create a Works Cited Page. When you bring a source into to your writing, create a Works Cited page and immediately add your source to the page, creating a complete, correct listing.
- Use Sources Correctly. Bring written sources into your paper using quotation, paraphrase, or summary.
- Cite/Identify In-Text Sources. When you add a source to your paper, immediately cite or identify it where it occurs.
- Proofread Your Work with Sources.
- Check and double-check to make sure every sentence containing a source has been properly cited or identified.
- Make sure Works Cited listings and in-text citations “match.” If you mention a source in your paper, it must also appear on the Works Cited list. If you mention a source on your Works Cited list, it must also appear in the paper.
Here are some excellent online resources to help you work with MLA:
The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL): this site is used by educators and colleges all over the US and in other countries as well. It will help you not just with MLA but with all aspects of writing, research, grammar, usage, etc. It has an excellent search tool. It’s also updated almost continuously.
The MLA Style Center: this is a subdivision of the larger MLA website. It has great materials to help students practice with MLA. It has a downloadable copy of the MLA template, FAQ pages, and more.
MLA Practice Template: from the MLA Style Center. Use this to practice formatting your citations.