Dr Abel Scribe PhD

1.0 MLA Mechanics of Writing

The Mechanics of Writing follows common usage for punctuation and spelling as well as rules unique to MLA style. For example, when do you write numbers as words and when as numerals? Do you write "twenty-one" or "21." Do you write the "twentieth century," or "Twentieth Century," or "20th century," or "20th Century?" MLA would have you write "twentieth century" (MLA 84). Only the more essential rules are featured in MLA Basic. Any guide to standard usage will generally serve for the rest.

Be consistent! Whatever form or usage you choose, you must be slavishly consistent throughout your text.. If you elect to use US style dates--an option in MLA style--for example "April 1, 2009," use that format throughout your text including references (MLA 83). It you opt for the universal format preferred in MLA style, "1 April 2009," that format must be used exclusively.

MLA Basic for Research Papers: Contents


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
4.0 References
  • 4.1 Page Layout
  • 4.2 Articles in Journals
  • 4.3 Books & Compilations
  • 4.4 Nonprint Sources
arrowAn abridged PDF version of MLA Basic is available to download.

1.1 Abbreviations (TOP)

bullet "Abbreviations are used regularly in the list of works cited and in tables but rarely in the text of a research paper (except within parentheses). In choosing abbreviations, keep your audience in mind. While economy of space is important, clarity is more so. Spell out a term if the abbreviation may puzzle your readers" (MLA 2009, 234).

  • Never begin a sentence with a lowercase abbreviation. Avoid beginning a sentence with an acronym.
  • Common abbreviations such as etc., e.g., and i.e. may be used only in parentheses. In the text write for example (e.g.); and so forth (etc.); that is (i.e.).
  • Spell out the names of countries, states, counties, provinces, territories, bodies of water, mountains, in the text.
  • Most prefixes to places, such as Fort, North, Port, South, are spelled out in the text; as are suffixes such as Peak or Fork. Write: North Platte, Fort Collins, Port Huron, South Bend, Long's Peak.
  • When writing initials, the traditional format is still preferred—put a period and a single space after each. For example, write: J. S. Bach, E. E. Cummings, C. S. Lewis.

Acronyms. "The trend in abbreviation is to use neither periods after letters nor spaces between letters, especially for abbreviations made up of all capital letters" (MLA 2009, 234). For example, write: CA, PhD, MLA, CD-ROM, US, UK.

  • If an acronym is commonly used as a word, it does not require explanation (IQ, LSD, FBI, ESP).
  • A term must be fully written the first time it is used, thereafter just the acronym is used.
  • If an acronym is not familiar to your readers use an expanded abbreviation. For MLA write Mod. Lang. Assn.
  • Use two-letter postal codes for U.S. states and Canadian provinces in references only (GA, PQ, etc.).
  • Write the plural form of an acronym without an apostrophe (e.g. some MBAs command high salaries).
NB> It is common practice in research writing to spell out the name or phrase to be abbreviated followed by the acronym in parentheses. Thereafter, just the acronym is used. For example, the Modern Language Association (MLA) publishes a journal. The MLA also publishes the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.

1.2 Capitalization (Titles of Works & Headings) (TOP)

bullet Capitalization in MLA style is mostly conventional, with the exceptions noted below. There is considerable ambiguity on whether some terms are capitalized or not. Generally, specific designations may be capitalized: the American West. But more general designations--or designations used as adjectives--are lowercased: The western United States, eastern Europe.

  • The names of ethnic or racial groups are capitalized if they represent a geographical region or language group. For example, Hispanic, Asian, African American, Appalachian.
  • Designations based only on color, direction, size, habitat, customs, or local usage are often lower cased.
NB> When in doubt, and when a good guide to grammar and usage is no help, follow whatever practice appeals to you but be consistent throughout your text!

Heading caps. "The rules for capitalizing are strict. In a title or subtitle, capitalize the first word, the last word, and all principal words, including those that follow hyphens in compound terms" (MLA 2009, 86). These are commonly referred to as heading caps. Do not capitalize the following unless they begin a title or follow a colon:

  • Articles: a, an, the.
  • Prepositions: against, between, in, of , to.
  • Conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet.
  • Infinitive: to.

Sentence caps capitalize just the first word, the first word after a colon, and any proper nouns in a heading or title.

  • Use heading caps for the titles of books and articles used in the text and in references.
  • Use heading caps for major headings in your paper (except run-in headings).
  • Use sentence caps for titles of most non-English works.
  • Use sentence caps for lower level run-in or paragraph subheadings.

NB> MLA style uses heading caps for the titles of sources—books, chapters, or articles— both in references and in text. However, the MLA Handbook also includes a section on capitalizing the titles in other languages. As a rule, titles in French, German, Italian, Spanish, or Latin are more conventionally rendered in sentence caps (capitalize just the first word, all proper nouns [according to the convention of the language], and the first word after a colon).

Character spacing. Conventional spacing after punctuation is practiced by MLA style, with the exception of putting a single space after most colons. Concluding punctuation (a question mark, exclamation point, or period) may be followed by one or two spaces as long as you are consistent throughout your text.

1.3 Italics (Underlining) & Quotation Marks (TOP)

bullet Italics. The MLA Handbook not longer recommends underlining where italics might be used. Add italics to a word or phrase only the first time it is used, thereafter use plain text.

  • Emphasize a keyword or phrase in your text by placing it in italics. The next time the term or phrase is used it should be in plain text.
  • Use italics for the titles of books and the names of periodicals in your text and references.
  • Use italics for "words and letters that are referred to as words or letters" (MLA 2009, 78). For example, write "The term American Indian is inclusive of over 500 Federally recognized ethnic communities."
  • Use italics for non-English words or terms used in your text. For example, "Ya-te-hay is a form of greeting in the Diné (Navajo) language." This practice excludes those words that have become incorporated in the English language, such as laissez-faire, or arroyo.

Within quotations. Emphasis may be added to a word or phrase in a quotation by placing it in italics. When this is done the note [emphasis added] or [italics added] must be inserted in brackets at the end of the quotation (within the quotation marks), or if the emphasis comes at the end of the sentence, in parentheses outside the quotation marks.

"Place quotation marks around a word or phrase given in a special sense or purposefully misused" (emphasis added, MLA 75).

Quotation marks. Use quotation marks for other than direct quotes only in the following circumstances:

  • "Place quotation marks around a word or phrase given in a special sense or purposefully misused" (MLA 2009, 75). For example, The Population Council criticized the "outrageous" position of the Church on birth control.
  • Use quotation marks to enclose a translation of a non-English term in your text. Addis Ababa, the name of the capital of Ethiopia, is literally translated "new flower."

NB> Add italics to a word or phrase only the first time it is used, thereafter use plain text.

1.4 Numbers & Dates (TOP)

bullet Numbers. If your topic makes little use of numbers, "you may spell out numbers written one or two words" (MLA 2009, 81). Otherwise, use arabic numerals. Write: one, five, twenty-one, one hundred, eighteen hundred, but write 5½, 101, 3,810. If your writing contains the recurrent use of numeric statistical or scientific data, use numerals for those numbers but write out other numbers in the text if you can do so in one or two words. Please note the following rules:

  • Hyphenate compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine, compounds with a number as the first element (e.g., three-way lightbulb), and the written form of fractions.
  • When numbers or a date are required to open a sentence, write them out. For example: "Five girls and 125 boys tried out for the varsity soccer team." If you can, rewrite the sentence.
  • Do not mix numbers that are spelled out with symbols, write out the term for the symbols as well. For example, write: 45%, or forty-five percent; $20 or twenty dollars.
  • Do not mix numerals with written numbers when they refer to similar things. For example, "Only 10 of the 150 people on the tour (not ten of the 150 tourists) were willing to visit the city after the riot." But also write: "The President got 1.3 trillion of the 1.6 trillion dollar tax cut he proposed."
  • Use numerals with symbols and abbreviations (e.g., %, $, ¢, ft., lbs., p.m., ed. vol.) when these appear frequently in your text or are used in references. For example, write: 25%, $25, 50 lbs., 3rd ed., vol 5. Otherwise write out numbers with measures in your text (but not in references) when you can do so in three words or less, twenty-five percent, twenty-five dollars, fifty pounds.
Ordinal numbers follow the general rules for numbers. For example, "The window for applications was the third to twenty-third of August." But use numerals if more than two words are needed to write the number. For example, write "Haile Sellassie I was the 225th Emperor of Ethiopia." However, MLA style uses numerals exclusively in references (e.g., 2nd ed., 3rd ed.).

Inclusive range of numbers. MLA style drops digits in numbers above 99 according to specific rules. This is the process of eliding a range of inclusive numbers.

  • When writing numbers through 99 give the full digits. For example, write 42-48 not 42-8.
  • Page numbers above 99 require only the last two digits of the second number as long as the result is unambiguous. Leading zeros are not dropped in MLA practice. Write pages 1123–24 not 1123–1124; write pages 2000–04 not 2000–4 nor 2000-2004. Write pages 112–35 and pages 102–21, but write pages 102–08 not 102–8 or 102–108.
  • Write pages 1,584–621 not pages 1,582–1,621, and certainly not pages 1,584–21.
  • Elide dates only when they fall within the same century. Write the years 1865-1917 not 1865-917.
NB> When expressing a range of numerals in text do not use a dash unless the numbers reflect an inclusive range of dates, write "to" instead. For example, "The IQ range of the first group was 86 to 112." But also write "The years of the Great Depression, 1930–40, tested America severely."

Full dates, when written in the text, may be in US format: month day, year (e.g., August 21, 2001); or in universal or European format, day month year (e.g., 21 August 2001). Whatever format you select be consistent throughout the text.

NB> References typically use the day-month-year format; sample references in the MLA Handbook and MLA Basic use this format.