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Differences Between MLA and APA Format Style

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Referencing is a huge responsibility. The better you do, the better becomes your academic paper’s quality. Proper referencing abiding by all the rules and regulations of the particular style makes the content of the paper more reliable and authentic.

But the real confusion for the students is the wide range of referencing styles and practices. It is not at all easy to remember all of them and the related rules. It is always handy to have a guide to help. You can follow these guides to do better and, most importantly, accurate referencing.

Here comes one such guide for you. This guide will discuss the differences between the most common referencing styles, the MLA and the APA styles.

Read the details of each style attentively and note the differences between both styles.

MLA Referencing – An Overview

Students and scholars in the humanities frequently utilise citations that are formatted in the MLA style. This manual is based on the MLA Handbook’s 9th version, which was released by the Modern Language Association in 2021.

When citing sources in MLA format, you must –

  • In-text citations that include the page number and the author’s last name.
  • The cited list of all the referring works includes comprehensive information about each source.
  • A heading in MLA style should be on the first page of your document, with one-inch margins, double spacing, and indented paragraphs throughout.

For your information, to properly cite your sources, you have to surely provide all necessary information in the Works Cited list. This list can also be called a “reference list” or “bibliography” in some citation formats. Keep in mind that there is also a type of bibliography called annotated. Do not get confused.

To implement MLA referencing accurately, you have to know about the 9 core elements of the same. Let’s look into it one by one –

  1. The Author

Write the author(s) name at the start of each source entry. The initial author’s name is always written inverted (Last name, initial name).

When there are two writers on a source, both authors’ names are listed in the traditional fashion (First name, Last name).

Only the first author’s name should be used when referencing sources with three or more writers, followed by “et al.”


An organisation may be the source’s author in addition to a person. In that case, just use the company’s name.

Start with the name of the source instead if the organisation is both the author and publisher.

  1. Title:

Give a brief summary of the source if there isn’t a title, capitalising each word as you would normally.

Use title case – capitalise all the words apart from conjunctions, prepositions, and articles. If there is no title, give a short description of the source with normal sentence case capitalisation.

Here you should know that you cannot randomly style the title. The styling entirely depends on the type of the source. Below mentioned are a few tips on the same.

  • Use italics when the source is self-contained. For example, a book, movie or a website.
  • Use “quotation marks” whenever the source is part of a larger content. For example – a chapter of a book or an article in a journal.
  • No styling is required when you are describing content with no proper title.
  1. Container:

The larger work is called a container if you’re citing a source that is part of a larger work, such as an article in a journal or a chapter in a book. However, if the source is a complete unit like a book, you can skip mentioning the container. Remember to italicise the container title.

For example –

Source Title – “The Clean Slate”

Container Title – The penguin book of the contemporary British short story

You should also know that a source can have more than one container.

For example –

Suppose you are taking a reference from the television show based on the Chornobyl massacre telecasted on HBO. In this case, your first container will be the show titled ‘Chernobyl’, and the second will be the channel ‘HBO’.


In case you are accessing some journal from a database like a google scholar or JSTOR, in this case, the name of the title will be the first container, and the database name will be the second container. In this case, you have to present it as shown in the picture.

  1. Other contributors

Besides the authors, a source can have other contributors as well. Contributors always conclude with a comma and are added right after the container title. Put a statement like “translated by,” “directed by,” or “illustrated by” after the contributor’s name.

Here’s an example –

  1. Version

When a source has multiple versions, you should mention the one you utilised. For instance, a second edition book, an enlarged collection, or a movie’s director’s cut would demand the inclusion of the version:

For example –

Porter, Michael E. Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analysing Industries and Competitors.2nd ed., Simon and Schuster, 1998.

  1. Numbers

Sources that contain numbers include journal articles (indicated by “vol. 18”), periodicals (indicated by “no. 25”), and television programs (indicated by “season 3, episode 5”). If your source has numbered sections, make sure to include this information in the source entry.

Here’s an example –

Wieseke, Jan, et al. “Basics of Psychology” Journal of Psychology, Vol. 10, no 5, 2018, pp. 25-32.

When the journal has both editions, volume and number, include all of them and just separate them using commas.

  1. Publisher

Publisher information is always included in citations for books and films. The organisation in charge of creating and disseminating the source is known as the publisher. This organisation is typically a book publisher (like Macmillan or Oxford UP) or a motion picture production business (like Paramount Pictures or Warner Bros.).

Keep in mind that “University Press” is referred to in a Works Cited entry as “UP.” For instance, the University of Minnesota Press is now referred to as “U of Minnesota P”, and Oxford University Press is now referred to as “Oxford UP.”

  1. Publication Date

Always add the publishing year if it’s available. If it helps the reader find the source, you can also provide the month, day, or even time of publication. Ranges of dates are also an option. When there is more than one date, use the one that is most relevant to your work. And if there is no publication date, mention when you accessed the information.

  1. Location of the Information

This absolutely depends on the type of source you are accessing. The following points will give you an idea –

  • Book chapter: The chapter’s page range, for example, pp. 95-111
  • URL of the website without the “https://”.
    • For example –
  • Journal article: stable URL without “https://” or a DOI
    • For example –
  • Name of the physical item or live events, such as The Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco or Art Centre in Egypt.

This was all about MLA-type referencing, and now let’s dive into APA-style referencing.

APA Referencing – An Overview

 Students, researchers and professionals from the social and behavioural sciences field use this type of referencing for their academic content. The guidelines mentioned below are the most significant ones from the 7th edition of the APA Publication Manual 2020. Unlike MLA referencing, APA referencing does not have so many components. The four main components of this type of referencing are discussed below.

The four components are Author, Date, Title, and Source.

The components are arranged in the same order as mentioned. Let’s discuss these components one by one in detail.

  1. Author

The first component is always the author. There is no hard and fast rule that the author has to be a person. It can be an organisation or a corporation as well. Here are some tips you can follow while listing the author’s name –

  • List the author’s initials with a space between them after listing their entire last name, followed by a comma. Never include an author’s complete first or middle name in a list.
    • For example – Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, W.
  • In your citations, avoid using courtesy or academic titles. Don’t forget to include suffixes like Jr., Sr., III, etc.
    • For example – Dr Martin Luther King Jr àKing, M.L., Jr.
  • Some authors capitalise their words differently. Keep the capitalisation in place.
    • For example – Bell Hooks àHooks, B
  • To maintain the meaning, the References page may need to put some names in a different sequence, such as those with religious or noble titles.
    • For example –  Father Francis

The reference list will contain all the names of multiple authors, but in the citation, the first author’s name will be followed by ‘et al.’

List the authors in the order that they are mentioned in the source. A comma should separate each author’s name, and the last author’s name should be followed by an ampersand (&). Write the names of up to twenty writers in this way in the reference list. In case there is no author, start the reference with the title, followed by the date and source.

Here are a few examples –

Example 1

Smith, J., Jones, B. E., Brown, K. E., & Doe, J. (Date). Title. Source.
List all authors in the reference; however, in-text citations will include the first author’s name only, followed by et al.
(Smith et al., 2009)

Example 2

Two Authors:
Smith, J., & Miller, W. C. (Date). Title. Source.
(Smith & Miller, 2009)

  1. Date

In most cases, for the date component, you’ll only have to provide the year within the parenthesis followed by a period. But for blogposts, newsletters, newspapers etc., you have to provide the full date.

In case there is no date present, simply use the abbreviation n.d in the designated place.

Use letters to distinguish between distinct works by the same author that were all published in the same year. Sort these citations according to the title component.

The original publication date can be added at the end of the reference if you are citing a classic book that has been reprinted or reissued. In-text citations must contain both dates.

Here are the examples –

Example 1 –

Valinsky, J. (2019, October 8). Instagram dark mode is here. CNN.
In-text citations, however, will only include the year.
(Valinksy, 2019)

Example 2 –

Rowling, J. K. (1999a). Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets. Arthur A. Levine.
(Rowling, 1999a)
Rowling, J. K. (1999b). Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban. Arthur A. Levine.
(Rowling, 1999b)

  1. Title

The title is the third element. The format of your title will vary based on what you are citing.

Only specific words in a title must be capitalised according to APA rules. Capitalise the words that follow:

  • The title’s first letter
  • Following a colon, the first word of the subtitle is typically:
  • Any proper nouns (such as individuals, groups, or locations)
  • every important phrase in the magazine or website title

The titles of stand-alone works must be in italics according to APA style. You do not italicise the titles if you are citing a passage from a longer piece of writing. Use such punctuation instead of adding a period if the title finishes with a non-period mark (such as a question mark or an exclamation mark).

Here is an example –

Jacobs, J. B. (2002). Can gun control work? Oxford University Press

  1. Source

Depending on the format of the work you are citing, the elements of a source may change. Follow the below-mentioned points –

  • The publisher is a book’s source. For example, if you are using a chapter from a book that has been altered, the source must also include the information from the amended book.
  • Journal, volume, issue, page numbers, and DOI are frequently included in article sources. Do not shorten the journal title; instead, spell it out completely. Italicising the journal’s name and volume is appropriate. Include the article number if it is available.
  • Internet sources often include the URL as well as the webpage where the source is located. Do not include the website title if the author and the title are the same. If the information is anticipated to change, you might choose to include a retrieval date in the URL.
  • Items without a source are regarded as personal correspondence and will only be cited in the text; they will not be listed in the references. This also includes things that the reader cannot access. Examples include emails, in-person meetings, public speeches, and other forms of personal communication.

Here are a few examples –

Example 1 –

Hain, P. (2018). Mandela: His essential life. Rowman & Littlefield.
(Hain, 2018)

Example 2 –

Johnson, P. (2019). Efforts to ban Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In R.C. Evans (Ed.), Censored & banned literature (pp. 169–186). Salem Press.
(Johnson, 2019)

Example 3 –

Hain, P. (2018). Mandela: His essential life. Rowman & Littlefield.
(Hain, 2018)

Key Differences between MLA & APA

You already must have understood where the style is different from the other, but here is a more compact differentiation between the two –

  1. MLA style is a system developed by the Modern Language Association for citing sources and organising academic works. On the other hand, the APA style is a format introduced by the American Psychological Association primarily used in social science papers, books, and journals.
  2. When it comes to sections, the APA format has four primary sections: title page, abstract, body paragraphs, and references. In contrast, only two major elements in the MLA format exist – the body paragraphs and the works cited.
  3. Since there is no specific title page in MLA format, the title is given on the first page and separated from the essay title by a double space. The other pages have headers on the right that list the author’s last name and the page number.

In contrast, the title page in APA format includes the title, author’s name, and name of the educational institution.

  1. If you’re working on a research paper, knowing the proper formatting for citing sources is important. MLA style uses the author-page format, which includes the author’s last name and page number in the citation. On the other hand, the APA style uses the author-date format, with the author’s last name and year of publication listed in parentheses after the quote.
  2. In MLA format, you don’t need to include the year, a comma after the author’s name, or a p. before the page number for direct or indirect in-text citations. This is different from the APA format, where those elements are required.
  3. The source page, which is the page on which we list down all the sources that have been utilised, cited, or referred to during the writing process, is referred to as references in APA format, whereas it is referred to as works cited in MLA format.

End Note

When writing a research paper, it is important to follow certain formatting guidelines. This is the same for both MLA and APA. The paper should be double-spaced and written in 12-point “Times New Roman” font. One-inch margins should be left on both sides. Additionally, the reference list should be alphabetically organised by the author’s last name. Depending on the research topic and writing technique, a researcher may choose one of two formats for their paper.

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Hi, I am Mark, a Literature writer by profession. Fueled by a lifelong passion for Literature, story, and creative expression, I went on to get a PhD in creative writing. Over all these years, my passion has helped me manage a publication of my write ups in prominent websites and e-magazines. I have also been working part-time as a writing expert for for 5+ years now. It’s fun to guide students on academic write ups and bag those top grades like a pro. Apart from my professional life, I am a big-time foodie and travel enthusiast in my personal life. So, when I am not working, I am probably travelling places to try regional delicacies and sharing my experiences with people through my blog. 

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