MLA Formatting and MLA Style: An Introduction

MLA examples focusing on format and style

A female student is sitting at a table in a library working on her MLA formatting and MLA style.
MLA formatting and MLA style can be tricky. 
Our editors break down what MLA is and how
to properly use it. Adam J. Merton ©2009

Your instructor has asked you to format your term paper using Modern Language Association (MLA)1 style. You feel confident enough to produce the paper, but you have never heard of MLA style—do you panic or do you research MLA style and MLA formatting?

This article will explain MLA style, give examples of MLA formatting, and offer a list of tips that our editors have learned over the years. If you have a general understanding of what MLA style is and are just looking for examples of MLA citations, we can help with that too!

A simplistic definition of MLA format

MLA style is an accepted way to document source material for many types of humanities documents. It is simpler than some other style guides, such as the APA Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style, and has two basic requirements:

1.       Brief parenthetical citations in the text

2.       An alphabetical list of works cited that corresponds to the in-text citations and appears at the end of the research paper

In simple terms, you put a reference to your source material in parentheses in the text and you list all the sources to which you have referred in alphabetical order at the end of the paper.

Of course, there is so much more to MLA style and MLA formatting than just that. Indeed, the current version of The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers 7th Edition runs to 292 pages! But here are the most commonly encountered style and formatting points.

To emphasize or not?

Sometimes, it is appropriate to draw attention to particular words in your paper, but using italics for emphasis (He really ate a lot…) is inappropriate in research writing and inconsistent with MLA style. Generally, in MLA format, foreign words used in an English text are to be italicized, as are words and letters referred to as words and letters (He spelled argument with an e).

MLA research paper format tips

Your instructor may issue particular instructions; if so, follow them. Otherwise, the following will help you set out your research paper in MLA style.

  • Use a clear typeface (Arial or Times New Roman) in a readable size (at least 11 point).
  • Justify the text to the left margin, leaving the right margin ragged.
  • Leave 1" margins on the top, bottom, left, and right.
  • Indent the first word in a paragraph by 0.5". Indent set-off quotations by 1".
  • Use double spacing throughout.
  • Use single spaces after full stops, commas, exclamation marks, etc.
  • There is no need for a title page; at the top of the first page (1" margin, flush left), type your name, your instructor's name, the course number, and the date on separate, double-spaced lines.
  • The title of your research paper should then be centered on the first page. There is no need for it to be highlighted in bold or italics or for it to appear in capitals.
  • Page numbers appear in the top, right-hand corner with a 0.5" margin from the top and with a flush right margin. It is good practice to include your last name before the page number in the event that pages go astray. Do not use the abbreviation p. before the page number or add any other mark or symbol. You may not need to include a page number on the front page—check with your instructor.

Good grammar, punctuation, and spelling are essential parts of your research paper. There is no room for basic typos at this level. Our advice is to check and check again, and don't just rely on your word processor's spell checker. Get a second pair of eyes to look over your paper; try our student essay editors to ensure that MLA style is consistent throughout your paper and there are no grammatical errors.


1Please note that this article refers to the 7th edition of the The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

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