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Welcome to the MLA citation guide! Please note that this is not the official MLA guide. For that you will have to buy the MLA Handbook (9th ed.). However, we have done our best to cover the essentials, hopefully in a concise and interesting way.

In fact, one thing you will quickly notice is that most of our examples are made up. Don’t waste your time trying to find them!

Basic Principles

The MLA Handbook is primarily used in the Arts. Other disciplines use different style guides.

The focus of the MLA guidelines is on ease of reference. When you cite your sources in the body of your essay (what is called “in-text citation”), you most often have to provide only the author’s name and the page number. The rest of the bibliographic information is contained in your Works Cited page at the back of your paper.

When it comes to those final citations, there are typically three key sections for each entry:

1. Author
2. Title
3. Container

Each of these sections ends with a period. Within a section, you separate information with commas.

Here is a more detailed overview of the basic structure, along with a specific example:

Container Example

Once you have collected as much information as you can find, you can easily turn it into a complete entry:

Warbling, Wren. “The New Zealand Pigeon Revisited.” The Backyard Birder, vol. 3, no. 4, 1992, p. 9.

The Container System

(Photo by Flickr user Vanveen, with permission)

The last section of each entry is a bit like a shipping container. It holds the contents (the author and title), and is often the larger work in which the source is found. For example, an essay might be found in an academic journal, or a short story in a book.

It may even happen that one container is part of another container. For instance, a television episode might be part of a larger series, which in turn is found in an online streaming service (e.g., Netflix). Think of this second container as the container ship.

At other times, the container is not really a larger work but simply consists of some publication information. In that case it’s more like a packing label.

Whatever metaphor you prefer, the main point is that every entry consists of at most three parts. Fill in as much information as you find relevant.

How to Use this Guide

Often there are multiple correct ways to cite a source. This flexibility can be difficult to teach, so to make things easier, we have split our version of the MLA guide into three major parts:

  1. In-text citation (how you cite your sources in the body of your essay).
  2. The sections of each Works Cited entry (author, title, container).
  3. The type of publication (books, articles, electronic sources, etc.).

There is significant overlap between the last two sections. However, this structure will make it much easier to find what you’re looking for.

In addition to these three sections, we also share MLA guidelines on formatting your paper, alphabetizing entries, optional elements, and much more.

Further Resources

For more information about the MLA guidelines, please consult the following resources:

  • MLA Handbook. 9th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2021.
  • The FAQ section at the MLA Style Centre.
  • The OWL at Purdue MLA section.