Learn and Generate Bibliographies, Citations, and Works Cited

The Basics of MLA Format Citation Style


Understanding Style Guides for Papers

Students start writing essays in middle school English classes. Their first assignments will be short essays or a five-paragraph essay. As they progress through high school and college classes, they will learn how to research and write longer papers for different subjects. These papers are assigned by the teacher, who will ask for certain citation style such as MLA. Usually MLA is the first style that students learn to use.

Students learning the basics of MLA citation format

Technology helps students a great deal these days. Most word processing software apps make it easy to format research papers by setting margins,hanging indents, headers, footers and tabs. It’s easy to find information online as well. Most journals are available through databases, which makes the research process easier. However, it can also complicate research as you will have to make sure you’re using strong, authoritative sources to back up your thesis statement.

Understanding Citation Styles

Citation styles such as MLA, APA, and Chicago/Turabian are much more than just formatting in-text citations and arranging bibliographies. When students think about citation styles like MLA, they usually think about how to format their sources in their paper and works cited list. However, these styles cover all parts of writing a paper, including researching your sources and displaying results.

There are thousands of different types of research and writing styles. Organizations, such as the American Medical Association, develop their own style so they can have consistency in research methods and publication standards in their field. Professionals need a way to easily read and understand research in their fields.

Citation Styles for Students

Although style guides are developed for researchers, they are used by students too. Learning to research and write is an important part of education. Middle and high school students learn to use MLA style while APA and Chicago/Turabian style are used in college. However, you may use these styles in high school as well.

MLA Style

MLA style was developed by the Modern Language Association in 1951. MLA is used by researchers and writers in the humanities field. You will use MLA in language and literature classes. The current version used by students is MLA 8. When the editors were preparing this edition, they realized that with all the new ways to access information, it was becoming difficult to provide specific citation formats for each situation. MLA uses in-text citations along with a works cited list of all references used in the paper.Typically, notes are not included in MLA, but your teacher may ask for them.

Using Core Elements in a Container System

MLA style is designed to be flexible. When you write in the humanities, you may be using paintings, films, and interviews besides print books and articles. The focus of MLA is that your reader can track your source to the same place you found it. You may have an interview of a writer published on YouTube but also on another forum. Since you don’t know for sure how each was edited, it’s important you include the same source you used in your report.

MLA’s container system uses nine core elements for each cited source. Include all the elements you have available. Then by nesting the core elements in containers, you can include additional information. For example, if you’re using a scholarly journal article in a database, the first container includes the original publisher or creator of the article. The second container includes the elements of the database.


First Container

Write out the first two elements

  •  author
  • title

3 through nine elements:

  • Data about the original publication

Start a new container using elements 3 through nine elements:

  • Enter data for the place you found the source.

MLA Flexibility

Using MLA style for creating your in-text citations and works cited source entries is designed to help your readers find relevant information. This means the writer has flexibility in designing the entries. For example, if you are using a movie as a source, you can use the director, producer, actor or writer as the author element. If you’re writing about a director’s contribution to film, the emphasis is on the director. However, if you’re writing about actors, you’ll want to use that as the first element.

Formatting Works Cited

As you write your paper, you’ll include direct and in-direct quotations and/or summaries of the sources you consulted for your paper. These are included throughout your paper in the form of in-text or parenthetical citations. Quotations may be used either as short sentences or a larger block quotation.

Each citation then links to a full source entry in your works cited page. If your teacher wants you to include sources you consulted but didn’t use in your paper, you’ll create a bibliography and title it Works Consulted.

Formatting your works cited page follows MLA style guidelines. Use the proper abbreviations and alphabetizing layout.

As students enter their senior year and plan for college, it’s a good idea to learn editorial styles such as  APA and Chicago/Turabian. Writing requirements increase in college. One of the complaints college instructors have is that their students enter college classes unprepared for college writing. Any students who spends time preparing for intense college writing will start out ahead of their peers.

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About the author

Adrienne Mathewson

Adrienne Mathewson, Editor-in-Chief of Bibliography.com, is an Information Professional with a Master’s in Library, Information & Science from San José State University with an emphasis on information literacy and scholarly publishing. She is a certified librarian through the State of New Mexico.

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