Introduction to MLA Documentation

What you’ll learn to do: examine MLA documentation formatting and practices

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Document sources by following formatting guidelines, using in-text citations, and creating a works cited page.

If you drive a car in America, you (and most every preschooler in the nation) know that green means “go” and red means “stop.” Why is that? Could a city suddenly decide to switch up the colors—blue means “go” and orange means “stop”? The answer is “no,” because changing the colors would cause mass confusion and pose a serious risk to drivers and pedestrians. In order to prevent such mishaps, there is a standardized protocol for traffic signals and lights.

Similarly, there are professional organizations that create and disseminate standard protocols for academic writing in different disciplines. In this section and the next, we are going to focus on two commonly-used formats: MLA (created by the Modern Language Association and used for writing about language and literature) and APA (created by the American Psychological Association and used for writing in the fields of behavioral and social sciences). (Your instructor may be focusing on MLA or may have you learn about both MLA and APA.) When you follow these guidelines and format your writing according to the specific procedures for appropriately citing sources, other people can easily navigate your research trail. Your paper will not only look nice, but it will include proper in-text citations and a References (APA) or Works Cited page (MLA) that appropriately gives credit to the authors who inspired your work.


Every few years, the MLA releases changes to its style guide under a new edition. The latest edition, as of 2021, is the 9th edition. In the materials that follow, you may see mention of the 8th edition. Don’t worry! The 9th edition doesn’t make any changes to in-text or Works Cited citations. You can see a full list of 9th edition changes at the MLA website.