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MLA General Format

Summary:

MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities. This resource, updated to reflect the MLA Handbook (8th ed.), offers examples for the general format of MLA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes/footnotes, and the Works Cited page.

Contributors: Tony Russell, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli, Russell Keck, Joshua M. Paiz, Michelle Campbell, Rodrigo Rodríguez-Fuentes, Daniel P. Kenzie, Susan Wegener, Maryam Ghafoor, Purdue OWL Staff
Last Edited: 2016-08-11 04:27:59

MLA style specifies guidelines for formatting manuscripts and using the English language in writing. MLA style also provides writers with a system for referencing their sources through parenthetical citation in their essays and Works Cited pages.

Writers who properly use MLA also build their credibility by demonstrating accountability to their source material. Most importantly, the use of MLA style can protect writers from accusations of plagiarism, which is the purposeful or accidental uncredited use of source material by other writers.

If you are asked to use MLA format, be sure to consult the MLA Handbook (8th edition). Publishing scholars and graduate students should also consult the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (3rd edition). The MLA Handbook is available in most writing centers and reference libraries; it is also widely available in bookstores, libraries, and at the MLA web site. See the Additional Resources section of this handout for a list of helpful books and sites about using MLA style.

Paper Format

The preparation of papers and manuscripts in MLA style is covered in chapter four of the MLA Handbook, and chapter four of the MLA Style Manual. Below are some basic guidelines for formatting a paper in MLA style.

General Guidelines

  • Type your paper on a computer and print it out on standard, white 8.5 x 11-inch paper.
  • Double-space the text of your paper, and use a legible font (e.g. Times New Roman). Whatever font you choose, MLA recommends that the regular and italics type styles contrast enough that they are recognizable one from another. The font size should be 12 pt.
  • Leave only one space after periods or other punctuation marks (unless otherwise instructed by your instructor).
  • Set the margins of your document to 1 inch on all sides.
  • Indent the first line of paragraphs one half-inch from the left margin. MLA recommends that you use the Tab key as opposed to pushing the Space Bar five times.
  • Create a header that numbers all pages consecutively in the upper right-hand corner, one-half inch from the top and flush with the right margin. (Note: Your instructor may ask that you omit the number on your first page. Always follow your instructor's guidelines.)
  • Use italics throughout your essay for the titles of longer works and, only when absolutely necessary, providing emphasis.
  • If you have any endnotes, include them on a separate page before your Works Cited page. Entitle the section Notes (centered, unformatted).

Formatting the First Page of Your Paper

  • Do not make a title page for your paper unless specifically requested.
  • In the upper left-hand corner of the first page, list your name, your instructor's name, the course, and the date. Again, be sure to use double-spaced text.
  • Double space again and center the title. Do not underline, italicize, or place your title in quotation marks; write the title in Title Case (standard capitalization), not in all capital letters.
  • Use quotation marks and/or italics when referring to other works in your title, just as you would in your text: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Morality Play; Human Weariness in "After Apple Picking"
  • Double space between the title and the first line of the text.
  • Create a header in the upper right-hand corner that includes your last name, followed by a space with a page number; number all pages consecutively with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), one-half inch from the top and flush with the right margin. (Note: Your instructor or other readers may ask that you omit last name/page number header on your first page. Always follow instructor guidelines.)

Here is a sample of the first page of a paper in MLA style:

Image Caption: The First Page of an MLA Paper

Section Headings

Writers sometimes use Section Headings to improve a document’s readability. These sections may include individual chapters or other named parts of a book or essay.

Essays

MLA recommends that when you divide an essay into sections that you number those sections with an arabic number and a period followed by a space and the section name.

1. Early Writings

2. The London Years

3. Traveling the Continent

4. Final Years

Books

MLA does not have a prescribed system of headings for books (for more information on headings, please see page 146 in the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd edition). If you are only using one level of headings, meaning that all of the sections are distinct and parallel and have no additional sections that fit within them, MLA recommends that these sections resemble one another grammatically. For instance, if your headings are typically short phrases, make all of the headings short phrases (and not, for example, full sentences). Otherwise, the formatting is up to you. It should, however, be consistent throughout the document.

If you employ multiple levels of headings (some of your sections have sections within sections), you may want to provide a key of your chosen level headings and their formatting to your instructor or editor.

Sample Section Headings

The following sample headings are meant to be used only as a reference. You may employ whatever system of formatting that works best for you so long as it remains consistent throughout the document.

Numbered:

1. Soil Conservation

1.1 Erosion

1.2 Terracing

2. Water Conservation

3. Energy Conservation

Formatted, unnumbered:

Level 1 Heading: bold, flush left

Level 2 Heading: italics, flush left

     Level 3 Heading: centered, bold

     Level 4 Heading: centered, italics

Level 5 Heading: underlined, flush left

A Multiple Page Business Letter, a Rule or an Exception?

Dixie is sure you have had at least a few instances in your career when you needed to write a multiple page business letter or two. Contract letters, legal findings, claim summaries and some other types of business letters can often run to many pages. And even in writing not so long letters there are cases when a letter can be squeezed on a single page but it would mean forsaking margins, formatting and white space that the eyes need to discern the writing easily. In such cases, Dixie would advise you to use two pages.

Nowadays with information overload and everyone's busy schedules it is preferable to write shorter business letters and Dixie would encourage you to keep the majority of your letters to one page. But do write multiple page letters when you need them.


The "How to" of Multiple Page Letters

When there are more pages than one in a letter it is normal practice to put nothing at the end of the first page. Since there is no closing line or signature it is obvious that there is another page, so Dixie would say it is quite logical. Subsequent pages do not contain the letterhead and are printed on plain paper. Instead they have a special identification of the letter, which is usually called "header" or "heading". It usually (but not always) contains the name of the addressee, the page number, and the date. In the picture below Dixie offers to your attention examples of the subsequent page header.

Be warned though that there might be even more variations of the above. Dixie covered the most widely spread formats, but the header, for instance, can even be placed at the top right margin of the page instead of the left.

For a long time we have been using single sided letters in business. And the standard multiple page letter formatting is certainly a remnant from those times. Nowadays it is possible to print double sided letters as easily as single sided and Dixie thinks we will probably use double sided printing more and more in the nearest future as it saves paper. And we will probably drop the multiple page letter heading from the double sided two paged letters. Even now some business writing experts recommend using the header starting from the third page justifying it by the fact that if there are just two pages in a letter it's easy to understand which is which.

But Dixie would like to emphasize that it's still common practice to number any subsequent page in a business letter, page 2 being no exception. And even double sided multiple page business letters, especially those that contain three pages and more would still need at least the page number, preferably on each page.

Dixie invites you to look at the picture of a single sided two paged business letter below which contains all the elements of multiple page business letter formatting accepted by the office standards in the US.





To Format a Multiple Page Letter Properly

  • Use letterhead when necessary for the first page and plain stationery for any additional pages.
  • Place a header containing the recipient's name, date and page number on all subsequent pages one inch from page top.
  • Go down three spaces or so from the page header on page two (or any other continuation sheet) and then continue your letter from the previous page.
  • Try to leave at least two lines on the first page if you must divide a paragraph between pages. It's good to have at least two lines from the divided paragraph on the subsequent page, as well.
  • If the paragraph is short, it's better to move the whole thing to the second page.
  • Have at least two (better three) lines of text before the closing on the last page.
  • Don't squeeze the letter onto one page if would look better on two pages. (Dixie just wanted to reiterate this point here)
  • Follow the first page's format except for the header instead of letterhead. All margins on the subsequent pages should match the first page (as well as the previous ones, Dixie is sure you realize that).

Stapling Pages Together in a Multiple Page Business Letter

You may not realize it but there's an ongoing debate whether pages of a multiple page business letter should be stapled (or not) before mailing. The old school says definitely no! The original should not be stapled, though the rule is not so strict for the copies. Not long ago experts recommended using paper clips (or nothing) instead of staples. But nowadays stapling is so common that this rule is changing along with so many others as you might have noticed. Besides, removing staples before making copies or scanning has become very easy. So, Dixie would say this is a matter of personal preferences. Isn't it nice to have a choice in the matter?!

And as Dixie has addressed the matter of stapling here, she would suggest stapling multiple pages of enclosures together, but not stapling those enclosures to the letter. Either leave them loose or use a paper clip, your choice again!

 



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