Dr Abel Scribe PhD

MLA Basic: Style & Overview

MLA Basic is a concise guide to crafting college research papers in the style of the Modern Language Association (MLA). It largely follows the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed., (MLA 2009), drawing on features found in the MLA's flagship journal PMLA.

MLA style is unchanged with the latest edition of the MLA handbook (2016) except for the reference format. The traditional form for references has served for sixty years and is retained in MLA Basic. The MLA handbook has a long history of missteps and reversals and that seems likely with this edition as well. Copyright 2009-2017 by Dr. Abel Scribe PhD.

MLA Handbook WARNING!  The Modern Language Association, through its Handbook, supports practices that are not acceptable in the research community. Namely, it requires sources that cannot be verified to be included in a reference list (in MLA speak, the list of Works Cited). Journal editors today routinely verify electronic sources in a reference list, and if they cannot be found they must be deleted before publication.

The APA Publication Manual (2009) notes "a reference list includes only references that document the article and provide recoverable data" (p. 180). Nonrecoverable sources, such as personal communications, may be noted in text citations but not as references.

The Turabian Manual (subtitle: “Chicago Style for Students and Researchers”, 2013) instructs users to “cite conversations, letters, e-mail or text messages, and the like only in parenthetical citations” (p. 258). Common sense dictates that a source that cannot be recovered and verified lacks credibility and authority, it is no source at all.

MLA Handbook? It is not appropriate to encourage students to follow practices widely deemed unacceptable in the research community. Therefore, the primary reference for this style sheet is the MLA Handbook, 7th edition. Unless otherwise noted, citations are to this edition. Most features of the style are unchanged; the section on “Ephemeral Sources” is adapted from Chicago style. The subheading styles come from the MLA’s journal, PMLA.

MLA Basic for Research Papers: Contents


1.0 Mechanics of Writing
  • 1.1 Abbreviations/Acronyms
  • 1.2 Capitalization (Titles)
  • 1.3 Italics/Quotation Marks
  • 1.4 Numbers & Dates
2.0 Page Layout
  • 2.1 Title & Text Pages
  • 2.2 Quotations
  • 2.3 Headings & Lists
  • 2.4 Tables & Graphics
3.0 Text Citations
  • 3.1 Basic Format
  • 3.2 Ephemeral Sources
  • 3.3 Literary Citations
  • 2.4 Tables & Graphics
4.0 References
  • 4.1 Page Layout
  • 4.2 Articles in Journals
  • 4.3 Books & Compilations
  • 4.4 Nonprint Sources

Doc Scribe Want the official (2016) version of MLA style without having to study the handbook? The MLA has thoughtfully provided sample papers in perfect MLA style. These, along with the PDF version of this site, will let you match your paper to the style with a minimum of hassle. Go to the MLA BASIC.PDF page for advice, cautions, and downloads.

What Gives? The Modern Language Association has shortened the title from "MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers" to "MLA Handbook" in the latest edition (2016). It has dropped the section on page layout arguing that scholarly work is now longer confined to the printed page, but may take the form of slide shows, lectures, blogs, conversations, and so on, so instructions for how to present a printed paper is irrelevant. Nonetheless, that section is provided on the MLA website.

The MLA has also replaced sample references to a variety of sources by creating a "container" model to be followed in constructing references. This is a 58-page set of instructions. You start by entering information into a template. Then, by following the many pages of rules, a reference is finally formatted.

MLA foibles & silliness. The MLA Handbook is prone to excess through changing editions. An earlier edition (5th) presented an elaborate scheme for presenting quotations. This was rescinded in the (6th) edition, but a comparably excessive scheme for referencing electronic sources was introduced. This in turn is gone with the 7th edition, but with more silliness (adding the medium of publication to all references). This is gone with the 8th edition, as are trademark features of the style.

MLA style uses a hybrid, author-page style of parenthetical (in parentheses) text citation traditionally combined with a Chicago style bibliography format for references. Other styles using parenthetical citations follow an author-date format (e.g., the American Psychological Association).

The traditional reference style has been changed, for no obvious good reason. Comparing the previous MLA style and Chicago style with the current MLA style highlights the changes. The earlier MLA and Chicago styles include an access date with online sources. This serves no credible purpose and has been left out.

MLA 7th (2009)

Makary, Martin A., and Michael Daniel. "Medical Error—The Third Leading Cause of Death in the US."
BMJ 353:i2139 (3 May 2016): 1-5. doi:10.1136/bmj.i2139.

Turabian(CMS) 8th (2013)

Makary, Martin A., and Michael Daniel. "Medical Error—The Third Leading Cause of Death in the US."
BMJ 353:i2139 (3 May 2016): 1-5. doi:10.1136/bmj.i2139.

MLA 8th (2016)

Makary, Martin A., and Michael Daniel. "Medical Error—The Third Leading Cause of Death in the US."
BMJ, vol. 353, issue i2139, 3 May 2016, pp. 1-5, doi:10.1136/bmj.i2139.

The MLA 7th and Chicago 8th versions are identical. The new MLA format is longer, adds numerous abbreviations that are not useful, and a lot of new punctuation. There are just two commas in the old MLA/Chicago references, seven in the new "improved" MLA container format. Given the history of past silliness it is quite possible the traditional format will be restored in a future edition as will the section on page layout for research papers.

MLA Basic follows practices common in other styles, especially the Chicago Manual of Style, while retaining trademark MLA features. MLA Basic differs from the handbook in these areas:

  • Publisher: The handbook does away with the location of a publisher in references. MLA Basic gives the city and state.
  • Publisher: The handbook abbreviates "University of Kansas Press" to U Kan P (You Can Pee); MLA Basic does not.
  • Subheadings: None are found in earlier handbooks, but the MLA's own journal uses them in articles, as does MLA Basic.
  • Spacing: Block spacing is recommended (single space within block quotes and references, double space before and after).
  • References: MLA Basic retains the decimal format for volume and number for articles, and MLA trademark. No "pp." please!
  • Unrecoverable sources: The handbook references these in the list of works cited, MLA Basic just cites these in the text.
  • URLs: MLA Basic suggests referencing just the top level domain (the part with .com, .net, .edu, etc., or a DOI. These are more likely to be recoverable than a long URL. The APA Publication Manual (2009) requires this, the top level domain or home page only, when there is no DOI (p. 198).
The MLA has abandoned its traditions with the latest handbook. MLA Basic retains those traditions while conforming to accepted practices followed by premier style guides such as the APA Publication Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style.

Copyright & Fair Use (TOP)

square You Cannot Copyright a Style. By law (17 U.S.C. 102(b)) "the original and creative word sequences in [a text] are protected by copyright, but a writing style itself is in the public domain, no matter how original it is" (The Copyright Handbook, 3rd. ed., by Stephen Fishman, 1998, Berkeley, CA: Nolo Press). You cannot copyright a research (or any) style, nor can you copyright a language, even a programming language. They belong to everyone.

The rationale for this is not hard to understand. If, for example, you wrote a book and stored it on your PC in Microsoft Word, would it then belong to Microsoft? After all, it's in their word processor format and style. How about copyrighting all the works in the style of William Shakespeare, the style of painting of Rembrandt, or even that of Rock'n Roll? If you could secure a copyright on a style, then you would own the copyright on everything published in that style. More recently the courts have denied copyright protection to programming languages, even those invented by Microsoft and IBM!

Fair Use. Copyright laws provide for the fair use of copyrighted material for educational purposes, reviews, and scholarship. The following is reproduced from the U.S. Copyright Office website:

One of the rights accorded to the owner of copyright is the right to reproduce or to authorize others to reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords. This right is subject to certain limitations found in sections 107 through 118 of the Copyright Act (title 17, U. S. Code). One of the more important limitations is the doctrine of "fair use." Although fair use was not mentioned in the previous copyright law, the doctrine has developed through a substantial number of court decisions over the years. This doctrine has been codified in section 107 of the copyright law.

Section 107 contains a list of the various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered "fair," such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Section 107 also sets out four factors to be considered in determining whether or not a particular use is fair:

1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

2. the nature of the copyrighted work;

3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The distinction between "fair use" and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use:

"quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author's observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported."

Copyright protects the particular way an author has expressed himself; it does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in the work.

The safest course is always to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission.

When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of "fair use" would clearly apply to the situation. The Copyright Office can neither determine if a certain use may be considered "fair" nor advise on possible copyright violations. If there is any doubt, it is advisable to consult an attorney.

Revised July 2006, U.S. Copyright Office, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC 20559-6000, http://www.copyright.gov.

Fair Use Applied. The American Psychological Association (APA) has this definition of fair use:

"APA policy permits authors to use . . . a maximum of three figures or tables from a journal article or book chapter, single text extracts of fewer than 400 words, or a series of text extracts that total fewer than 800 words without requesting formal permission from APA" (APA, 2009 173).

MLA Basic Fair Use (TOP)

square You are welcome to print, link, or distribute MLA Basic for not-for-profit educational purposes. Instructors are encouraged to use the guide in their classrooms. No additional permission is required.