This section describes the referencing style of the Modern Language Association (MLA; based on the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook). If you are new to referencing, see introduction to referencing.
MLA Style principles
The 8th edition of the MLA Handbook is based on principles rather than rigid rules. This allows you to take account of your intended readers and cite sources according to the level of their perceived needs. If your primary aim is just to acknowledge a source from which you have drawn information, then a minimal form is sufficient as long as you:
- Attribute the source of your ideas
- Enable a reader to find the source cited
- Are consistent in your description.
If, however, you are discussing the finer details of a source (such as the nature of a particular manifestation of a work or the way in which it's provided), then more detail may be required. Consider what your readers need to know if they want to find, or more fully understand, your source.
The broad principles allow you to describe any source by drawing from the following set of elements, in this order - but only where they are present:
Author. (e.g. a person, people, an organisation or institution)
"Title of Source." (e.g. chapter title, article title, web page, song, TV episode)
Title of Container,* (e.g. book title, journal title, website, album name, TV show)
Other Contributors, (e.g. translated by, edited by, directed by, performance by)
Version, (e.g. edition)
Number, (e.g. volume number, issue number)
Location. (e.g. page number, section number, URL)
There is a template that you can use to practice formatting an MLA reference here.
Container is the MLA way of describing the larger thing that holds the information you are citing (e.g. a book contains chapters, a magazine contains articles, a website contains web pages, a blog contains blog posts etc). Generally, the source will only have one container. Sometimes though it may be nested in a larger container (e.g. an older book may be held in an online repository, a collection of artworks may be held in a museum, an excerpt from a novel may sit within a collection of readings).
This second (larger) container should only be included in the citation if it is critical to the understanding of the source or the finding of it requires the larger container. This is particularly true for sources that are unique to the second container (e.g. Netflix, YouTube). For most other citation purposes the first, inner, container is sufficient.
Note the punctuation: There is a full stop after the first two elements (i.e. author and title of the source) then commas after all the other elements until the end full stop. The title of the source (e.g. chapter title, article title, web page, song, TV episode) should be in the double quotation marks and the title of the container (e.g. book title, journal title, website, album name, TV show) should be italicised.
Where information is missing (e.g. publication date), simply omit this information.
More detailed examples of the application of these principles including use of containers are illustrated in the following linked pages.
In this section
- In-text citation
- List of works cited
- Referencing elements
- Captions for visual material
- Quoting and paraphrasing
- Referencing styles
- Why reference?
- Referencing software
- Academic writing