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APA vs. MLA: Choices and Differences

Why can’t all academic disciplines just hammer out one style that fits all needs? It’s an attractive idea, but an impractical one.

Notwithstanding the current APA dominance, quite some journals still prescribe MLA style. This is mainly because of the Humanities field and involves mostly literary journals.

Your academic field and the journal you are submitting to dictate the format. If you belong to the academic staff, you will have to (meticulously) follow the guidelines of the journal you submit your paper to.

This APA / MLA style difference is logical. Can you imagine representatives from all different academic fields gathering, United Nations-like, to reach a consensus agreement:

  • The MLA advocate cries: Spell out the first name in the reference!”
  • No, use initials with a period after each initial,” answers the ambassador from APA.
  • “Initials are good, but no period, no space between!,” counters the distinguished diplomat from MLA.

The fight would rage into the next 1001 nights on that and many other questions. Use “and” or “&” and in what context? How shall we indicate pagination? What should the capitalization of a title in a reference be? Etc., etc.

Using a certain style shows what specific field a researcher belongs to. It furthermore illustrates how skilled the writer is at communicating the APA or MLA “language” signals within their field. In other words,  if you walk like a duck, quack like a duck and swim like a duck, you are officially acknowledged as a ‘duck’.

There are clear historical reasons at the center of each style that can help you understand why different styles were created. This might also give some shape and explanation on why you have to “suffer” in mastering the rules and conventions when writing an research paper.

APA dates back to 1929 and guidelines were then put in place because too many authors were submitting overly long, messy, emotional, illogical and unscholarly articles to frustrated journal editors.

Those editors needed some external help, a number of “rules”, to avoid being overburdened by burning the midnight oil correcting such texts.

Time passed and editors could start relaxing somewhat. What began as a guide of a mere 7 pages (in 1929) became a more widely manual (290 pages!) used at the university level in the Social Sciences. Using APA style marks you as a scholar of a certain scientific community. The style prides itself on using clear, concise and logical expressions.

MLA style is used mainly by scholars in the Humanities. It is arguably not as strictly dogmatic as APA. MLA concentrates on a simple indexing of the author’s name, the title of the work quoted, and the particular page number(s) relevant to a citation.

The date of publication is not generally considered by scholars in the Humanities to be as significant as it may be in APA style: social sciences (APA style) are often more closely linked to the latest developments in the scientific world. MLA, on the other hand, focuses on the aesthetics of poetry or the analysis of an epic novel, or even the nature of semicolons. But just in case you wonder: there are also separate style guides for Medicine, Biology, Chemistry, and other fields that emphasize certain details important to their field of research.



My list is far from an exhaustive list of differences, but it will highlight some important ways in which APA and MLA differ.

APA (The American Psychological Association) and MLA (the Modern Language Association) update their guidelines periodically, so the examples listed below are subject to change. Unfortunately, this can create additional research on your part just to make sure you are formatting your paper in compliance with the latest revisions of the guidelines. But then again,  comfort yourself with the thought that every academic has or had to go through this.


Authors, Editors

For MLA format references, you need to list all authors and editors cited within your paper at the end of your manuscript. You also place a brief credit citation in parenthesis within your paper. In MLA style, the complete description at the end of your manuscript is called the Works Cited or Bibliography list. For APA, the same list is called the References list.

If the person named in the MLA list is the author, you simply include their last and first name, separated by a comma. However, if the person cited is an editor, you follow their name by a comma and the abbreviation “ed.”. For APA, put the author’s last name first, followed by initial name and middle name. Edited APA entries are similar to MLA style, but the journal you wish to publish for might have its own style sheet for such cases.




Fishman, J. 1991. Reversing Language Shift. Multilingual Matters. Clevedon.


Fishman, Joshua. Reversing Language Shift. Multilingual Matters. Clevedon. 1991.

APA (edited):

Fishman, J. 1972. Language in sociocultural change. In Anwar S. Dill (ed.). Essays by Joshua A. Fishman, 15. 
Stanford: Stanford University Press.

MLA (edited):

Fishman, Joshua. “Language in Sociocultural Change”. In Anwar S. Dill (ed.). Essays by Joshua Fishman, 15. 
     Stanford University Press. 1972.

Also note that in MLA style the first line of the Works Cited entry is flush with the left margin, and second and subsequent lines are indented. This format helps readers locate authors’ names in the alphabetical listing. MLA style also usually features double spaced lines throughout the paper.


Order of Entries in Bibliographic List

The order of entries using the MLA format is alphabetical by author, then alphabetical by title.

APA style requires all references listed alphabetically by author, then chronologically by work.


Multiple Works by the Same Author

When listing multiple works by the same author using the MLA format, you need to list the works alphabetically, but only the first listing contains the author’s name. For all remaining entries you need to start with three hyphens, a period, a space, the name of the title followed by a period. The three hyphens represent the author’s name(s) in the preceding entry.


Example MLA (multiple works by the same author, multiple entries):

Fishman, Joshua. “Language Maintenance and Language Shift as Fields of Inquiry.” Journal of Linguistics 9. 32-70. 1964.
--- . “Language in Sociocultural Change.” In Anwar S. Dill (ed.). Essays by Joshua A. Fishman, 15. Stanford: 
       Stanford University Press. 1972.
--- . Reversing Language Shift. Multilingual Matters. Clevedon. 1991.

When listing multiple works by the same author using the APA format, you will list the works chronologically and repeat the name for all entries.

Example APA  (multiple works by the same author (multiple entries):

Fishman, J. 1964. Language maintenance and language shift as fields of inquiry. Journal of Linguistics 9. 32-70.
Fishman, J. 1972. Language in sociocultural change. In Anwar S. Dill (ed.). Essays by Joshua A. Fishman, 15. 
Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Fishman, J. 1991. Reversing Language Shift. Multilingual Matters. Clevedon.


Article Titles

For MLA style, you need to reference all article titles in quotation marks with all major words capitalized. In contrast, the APA format does not contain article titles in quotation marks and only capitalizes the first word.


Example MLA:

Giles, Howard, Kim Noels & Hiroshi Ota. “Age Vitality across eleven Nations”. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 21: 308-23. 2000.


In-text Citations with Parentheses

The format for MLA style when using in-text parenthesis for citing works is (Name space page number), as in (Fishman 40).

The APA format guideline is (Name comma year comma p. #), as in (Fishman, 1991, p. 40).

The differences in these two styles are mainly related to APA’s focus on timely (recent) sources as opposed to MLA’s focus on the classics. But overlapping between the two styles occurs frequently, as in (Fishman 1991, 40).

Still, a citation in MLA contains only enough information to enable readers to find the source in the Works Cited list, while a citation in APA includes the publication date and often (though not always as a rule) the abbreviation p. before page numbers.

In the Humanities (MLA), scholarly research usually remains relevant for a longer period. So it’s only logical that MLA publication dates receive less attention. Although they are always included in the Works Cited listings, you may omit them from in-text citations.

An additional benefit in MLA is that texts have fewer “disruptions” and are therefore more easily readable than APA texts. However, in the Sciences (APA), where timeliness of research is crucial, the date of publication is given a high importance.


General Appearance

Manuscripts written in MLA and others in APA will differ clearly in physical appearance. This difference is noticeable immediately, as an APA paper will always have a title page at the start of the document, followed by an abstract (a brief description of the document). An MLA paper will only have a title page when the journal style guide asks you to provide one.

The bodies of MLA and APA documents will also look different. APA requires quotes longer than 40 words by indenting them one tab space. In MLA, quotes that continue for more than four lines are indented two tab spaces.

MLA style also aims to be concise and simple and tries to avoid visual aids like graphs, figures and charts. The goal of APA style, on the other hand, is to highlight intellectual ideas and hypotheses, regardless of the means used to do so. This often results in appendixes (extra pages at the end of the paper), which could include further informative documents as research questionnaires and charts.

For more detailed information on MLA Style, I recommend:

For more detailed information on APA Style: