The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison

A quick orientation to MLA

What is MLA style

Like all documentation styles, MLA style provides a standard system for giving credit to others for their contribution to your work. It's what we call a "parenthetical" documentation style, meaning that citations to original sources appear in your text. This allows the reader to see immediately where your information comes from.

The MLA style calls for two kinds of information to be included in in–text citations. The author's last name must always appear and must match exactly the corresponding entry in the works cited list. The second kind of information, the page number, appears only in a citation to a direct quotation extracted from a source with page numbers.

The MLA style includes guidelines for the formatting of documents. The most important aspects of these guidelines for most academic writing are the formatting of the document in general (i.e. 1–inch margins all around, everything is double–spaced) and of the works cited list.

When should I use it?

MLA is used in discplines such as English and foreign language and literature as well as in other humanities fields. But always defer to your instructor's expectations.

What do I really need to know?

It is very important to document all sources that you have used in writing your paper. You will need to cite sources for:

  • direct quotations from sources,
  • paraphrases and summaries of ideas and information from sources,
  • information and ideas that are not common knowledge or are not available in a standard reference work, and
  • any borrowed material that might appear to be your own if there were no citation.

If you would like more information on what needs to be documented, be sure to ask your course instructor. Please also ask at the Writing Center or look on our Web site for our handout “Acknowledging, Paraphrasing, and Quoting Sources.” You may also want to consult pages 6-12 in the MLA Handbook, 8th edition (2016), to learn more about what plagiarism is, why it’s a big deal, and how to prevent it.

How should I best use this resource?

First read through our overview of how MLA structures works cited entries so that you can understand the logic behind how these are formatted. Then determine what types of sources you have, whether they're journal articles, books, or interviews, and use the appropriate page to locate examples of what these kinds of entries look like. Then go to our page on in–text citations for information on refering to these sources within the body of your paper.

If you're writing a paper in MLA style for a course, keep in mind that instructors may have specific guidelines of their own. When in doubt regarding whether to use a particular aspect of MLA style, always ask your instructor to clarify.