Choosing between APA and MLA

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Students in high school, graduate, Master’s and PhD level get various kinds of essays and assignments that are formatted according to a specific format style, as directed by the teacher. However, each style is common in some fields of study while they are quite rare in others.

APA vs MLA - which format is better

The American Psychological Association style is commonly used by the students of social sciences like psychology, sociology, social work, nursing and medical sciences and communication while Modern Language Association, MLA, is generally used in the fields of humanities, literature, theater and other liberal arts. However, it is a common belief that if no style is mentioned then APA is used, regardless of the field you are studying in.

1. What is a Citation and Citation Style?

Before moving forward with APA and MLA style guides and differences between them, you need to learn what a citation and citation style is. A citation is added into the academic papers and essays to refer back to the source of information and to credit the original author. It includes the name of the author, date of publication, name of the publisher, year of publication, page number, in case of journals and books, name of the journal, edition, DOI (Digital Object Identifier) and the online source from where the data is retrieved. A citation is important to avoid plagiarism and to add credibility to your academic work.

A citation is important if you want to avoid plagiarism and do not want to get your paper rejected.

A citation style is the leading style guide that directs the design of the paper. It includes everything from the title page to the references and bibliography page. Every citation style is different and you need to format your papers according to the style guide given by your teacher. Universally, there are three main types of citation styles: APA, MLA and Chicago.

2. APA vs MLA – What are the Differences?

APA format citation is similar to MLA format in quite some things like both of them use font type and size, Times New Roman 12pt, margins are one inch all around and the paper is double spaced. However, where they have some similar aspects, there are a number of differences between them that could not be avoided. Learn and follow them completely if you do not want your teacher to minus your score.

2.1 APA vs MLA History

Talking about the APA vs MLA points, both of these referencing styles have different histories, originations and their purposes of development. Researchers and experts developed these referencing styles to support particular fields of study.

2.1.1 History of APA Citation

Established in the year 1929, the style was designed and developed by a group of psychologists, business professionals and anthropologists to help the authors to structure and organize their work in a cohesive method. The main idea behind it is to ensure clarity in the content and the headings and subheadings are presented comprehensively. It is specifically developed to support scientific studies presented in the form of papers, lab reports, journal articles and other documents and this is one major APA vs MLA aspect.

2.1.2 History of MLA Citation

MLA has an older history than APA, the Modern Language Association, originally, it was developed to help the experts and students of the humanities field to structure their papers and share their findings with fellow members and colleagues. The community is quite active as the MLA members host a number of meetings and annual conventions to discuss relevant works and matters.

A key to APA vs MLA format is that APA focuses on the work more than the references and citations and credits new research. MLA uses detailed citation method and credits both new and old studies and research.

2.2 APA Title Page vs MLA Title Page

APA style papers and essays have a separate title page that is formatted in the respective style. The main things to add in the APA citation style title page are:

– Running Head or Title of the page; mentioning the main idea of the paper and not the whole topic

– Main topic, author’s name and institute’s name; centered on the page, 12pt, Times New Roman font style, double spaced and without any underlines, bolds and italics

– 1-inch margin on all four sides

MLA paper does not require any separate title page and, generally, the author’s name, instructor’s name, department and the date of submission are mentioned on the first page of the assignment. The paper starts immediately after these details and with a centered paper title.

2.3 APA Paper Format vs MLA Paper Format

Though both the citation styles share some common traits, they do have some differences in their formats. The paper presentation in both the styles is the same as both of them have 12pt Times New Roman font size and style, 1-inch margin on all four sides of the paper and double spaced. All the paragraphs are indented and the paper must contain proper, and accordingly, in-cites to credit the paraphrase and direct quotes. One of the main APA and MLA differences is that in the MLA, writers add endnotes and footnotes to give additional information. In APA style paper, no footnotes are added.

2.4 APA vs MLA Citation

A major APA vs MLA format characteristic is the style of referencing that is used in both of them. The references in the APA format is added in the ‘References’ page while the cited works in MLA are added in the ‘Works Cited’ page.

2.4.1 For Hardcover Books

In both APA and MLA formats, the books’ authors, year of publishing, publisher and place of publishing are added, but in a different order.

APA Citation Format

The author’s last name followed by the initial of the first name and year of publication, italicized name of the book, city, state and publisher are added.

James, H. (1937). The ambassadors. New York, NY: Scribner.

MLA Citation Format

For MLA print book citation method, the last name is followed by the first name of the author, the main title of the work, city, publisher, the year of publication and print, to indicate the kind of book.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1942. Print.

2.4.2 For Online Books

Online books citation differs in the way that the online source, the web link, is added into the citation so that it is accessible afterwards also.

APA Citation Format

The following format is followed,

Porter, R. (1994). London, a social history. Retrieved from

MLA Citation Format

For MLA online book citation, the following order is followed,

Bodnar, Kipp, and Jeffrey L. Cohen. The B2B Social Media Book. Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.

2.4.3 For Books from a Database

Apart from hardcovers and print versions, there are many books that are available in the databases, line websites and online publishing sites and could be accessed online. For them, link to the main database is added into the reference.

APA Citation Format

For APA, the whole format is the same but the link of the website is added.

Bloom, H. (1986). American women poets. Retrieved from

MLA Citation Format

The whole format is the same except only the source, web is mentioned with the date and URL of the source.

Morem, Susan. 101 Tips for Graduates. New York: Ferguson, 2005. Infobase Publishing eBooks. Web. 16 Mar. 2010.

2.4.4 For Websites and Blogs

For most of the students, online sources are a way to go. People now prefer and rely on digital mediums than print books and other sources. To highlight more of the APA vs MLA features, we are adding how to cite your online sources here.

APA Citation Format

For websites, only its link is added, without the date on which it was accessed, along with the author and date of publishing.

Cain, K. (2012, June 29). The Negative effects of Facebook on communication. Social Media Today RSS. Retrieved from

For blogs and articles, follow the following structure.

China, The American Press, and the State Department [Web log post]. (2013, January 3). Retrieved from Schonfeld, E. (2010, May 3).

MLA Citation Format

One core difference that we would like to mention and add in this APA vs MLA argument is that where APA follows separate format for websites and blogs, MLA follows the same for both.

Cain, Kevin. “The Negative Effects of Facebook on Communication.” Social Media Today RSS N.p., 29 June 2012. Web. 02 Jan. 2013.

2.4.5 For Print Journals

Academic journals are often used by students to learn about new trends and studies and to stay up-to-date also. When adding journals in your paper, or study, make sure that you follow proper citation guidelines to ensure its flawless structure.

Our complete guide on MLA format with sample paper and further examples will help you understand it further.

APA Citation Format

To add citations and references for journals, add volume and issue number and page numbers along with the date of publication, the author’s name and paper title.

Jacoby, W. G. (1994). Public attitudes toward government spending. American Journal of Political Science, 38(2), 336-361.

MLA Citation Format

For MLA, all the details mentioned for APA paper format will be added except that the order of mention will be different.

Jacoby, William G. “Public Attitudes Toward Government Spending.” American Journal of Political Science 38.2 (1994): 336-61. Print.

2.4.6 For Online Journals

Besides being available in libraries, academic journals are available online as well. If you are here to look for a guide to know about how to cite online journals, follow the following structure.

APA Citation Format

Along with the previously mentioned details, in the online version, the link of the main website, paper tile and doi (Digital Object identifier), or the date of retrieval is added.

Poiger, U. G. (1996). Rock ‘n’ roll, female sexuality, and the Cold War Battle over German Identities. The Journal of Modern History, 68(3), 577. doi:10.1086/245343

MLA Citation Format

The date of retrieval and the title of the website are added at the end of the reference.

Poiger, Uta G. “Rock ‘n’ Roll, Female Sexuality, and the Cold War Battle over German Identities.” The Journal of Modern History 68.3 (1996): 577. JSTOR. Web. 2 Jan. 2013.

2.4.7 For Database Journals

Apart from print and online journals that you can find for your paper’s assistance, to format a paper from a database, use the following methods.

APA Citation Format

To know the format, follow the following structure,

Davis, E. (1932). New chapters in American history. The Science News-Letter, 22(605), 306-307. doi: 10.2307/3907973

MLA Citation Format

Follow the following structure to add your citations for online academic journals.

Jacoby, William G. “Public Attitudes Toward Government Spending.” American Journal of Political Science 38.2 (1994): 336-61. JSTOR. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.

2.5 APA vs MLA In-text Citation

Found a great quote or phrase? Great. Adding direct quotes and phrases and paraphrased content is a great way of supporting your research. However, the added information must be cited and referenced properly.

2.5.1 For a Single Author

For APA in-text citation, the last name of the author followed by the date of publication and page number, in case of books or journals and specific parts of a study, is presented in parentheses.

“Darwin’s theory of evolution is flawed and inconsistent. (Shawn, 2015, p. 15).”

In case the author’s name is mentioned in the sentence, just add the year in front of the writer’s name and the page number at the end of the sentence.

Shawn (2015) argues that Darwin’s evolution is flawed and inconsistent (p. 15).

For MLA style, the last name of the author, followed by the page of the book or journal, if any, is presented in parenthesis.

“Darwin’s theory of evolution is flawed and inconsistent. (Shawn 15).”

If the author’s name is added to the sentence then the page number is mentioned only.

Shawn (2015) argues that Darwin’s evolution is flawed and inconsistent (15).

2.5.2 For Multiple Authors

In APA format, all the last names of the authors and year of publication are mentioned in the first in-text, separated by a comma and ampersand.

Greenhouse effect is one of the key players in increasing global warming (Williams, Smith, & Shaw, 2015).

For every other subsequent in-text, only the first name is added, followed by et al and the year of publication.

Global warming is affecting the environment on a large scale can be minimized by reducing our carbon footprint (Williams et al., 2015).

For MLA paper citation, you do not need to add and mention all the writers in the first intext. Only the first author is mentioned while the others are cited as et al followed by the page number.

By minimizing the use of plastic and non-biodegradable substances, the environmental hazards of carbon and global warming could be minimized to a large extent (Williams et al. 50). In case the authors are mentioned in the sentence, only page number will be mentioned at the end of the sentence.

2.5.3 For Sources Without an Author

Coming across a source without any author is probably the most frustrating thing for a student but it is common when you are working with digital images, movies and videos, dictionaries and encyclopedias and online web pages where authors are not mentioned.

In APA, in case you do not find the author, add the first few words of the study and the year of publication.

According to a new research, human cloning may be the future of human advancement (“Genetics and Genes,” 2014).

If you have mentioned the title of the study in the content then add the year of publication only.

According to “Genetics and Genes” study (2014), human cloning may be the future of human advancement.

In case of no author name in MLA citation, the name of the work is used in parentheses and quotation marks. If the title is too long, shorten the title but make sure that the words are the same as added and mentioned in the Works Cited.

“From the moment you hold your baby in your arms you will never be the same. You might long for the person you were before, when you had freedom and time and nothing in particular to worry about” (“The Last Time”).

For online sources, in both APA and MLA, the same format of author’s name and date of publication is followed. In case nothing is mentioned, just add the title of the article, or paper.

Make sure that you follow the right in-text citation style.

2.6 APA vs MLA Headings and Subheadings

MLA does not follow a tightly knitted headings and subheadings system as it is mostly used by the students of literature and other social arts subjects. These subjects do not much of headings and subheadings and follow the paragraph system only. However, if you still want to divide your paper into sections, there is a suggested format for it.

1. Heading 1
1.1. Subheading 1
1.2. Subheading 2
2. Heading 2
2.1. Subheading 1
2.2. Subheading 2

This table is just for reference and to give you an idea only; you should use whatever works best for you but make sure that it is consistent throughout the paper.

APA format has a well-defined headings and subheadings system; because this is followed by the scholars of scientific studies and they use headings and sections to organize their work, this format has a set guideline for sections.

A usual APA format for headings and subheadings is:

Level 1 Heading
    Level 2 Heading
      Level 3 Heading.
        Level 4 Heading.
  Level 5 Heading.

When adding headings and subheadings in your APA style paper, consider these and follow the structure carefully.

2.7 APA vs MLA References

In an APA paper or essay, the references are added at the end of the paper and under the ‘References’ title. The works used as references in an MLA paper are added under the ‘Works Cited’ title. All the citations and references are organized in alphabetical order.

2.8 APA vs MLA Bibliography

None of the APA or MLA calls for bibliography as a must. They treat References and Works Cited pages as thorough references. However, if you do need to add the bibliography, follow the citation structure as prescribed by your respective paper’s citation format.

3. When to Choose APA vs MLA?

This is quite an easy question and a simple answer to it is, it depends on what your teacher has specified. Talking in general terms, APA is used for scientific papers that want to highlight their findings and research and want to organize it with proper headings, subheadings and sections. MLA is mostly used by the people associated with humanities and fields of liberal and social arts and focus on presenting the references in a detailed way.

In case your teacher has not specified the format, it is better to ask or go with APA format since it is more universal than the other forms.

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4 thoughts on “Choosing between APA and MLA”

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