When you start college and get your first assignments, you understand that formatting your paper is almost as important as researching and writing it. You can get your points taken away or even get your paper back for revision and corrections because of the wrong or inconsistent style.
There are dozens of citation and writing styles, but APA and MLA are the most significant and widespread across colleges and universities in the USA. They share many similarities, which is probably the reason why many students find it so confusing and often cannot tell the difference between MLA and APA citation.
Indeed, the most basic requirements of MLA vs APA format are similar, the major differences concern the way that the works are cited in the text and the References section. Let’s see how they compare to each other.
Origins of APA vs MLA Citation
APA stands for the “American Psychological Association”, which is the organization behind the guidelines. The APA recommendations were first introduced in the 1929 writer’s guide and since then they kept being regularly updated. For example, neutral terms were added instead of those deemed sexist, racist, or otherwise biased and stigmatizing, to ensure that tone used in publications is objective and correct.
MLA stands for “Modern Language Association of America”. Its full academic style guide was first published in 1985 – more than half a century after the APA’s handbook, which might be the reason why APA is more widespread.
Differences between MLA vs APA citation are the most visible when we look at the in-text citation and the full book entry in the bibliography at the end of the paper. See the next paragraph for the examples of these differences.
Similarities and Differences Between MLA And APA
Before we proceed with looking at differences between MLA and APA, let’s first clear the main similarities:
- Both formats require you to use Times New Roman 12 pt.
- Both require double spacing
- All margins should be 1 inch in both formats
- Both require running head on all pages
- The language should adhere to academic standards, be free of slang, bias, and connotations.
- There should be no contractions or personal pronouns
As we have already mentioned, the difference between the styles is the way they both handle citing: date placement, author name, title capitalization, page number, etc. Here is a quick side-by-side comparison of APA citation vs MLA citation:
Direct quote in the text:
APA: “The idea of race has been socially constructed in similar ways” (Rothenberg, 2007, p. 9).
MLA: “The idea of race has been socially constructed in similar ways” (Rothenberg 9).
Full book entry for bibliography:
APA: Rothenberg, P. (2008). Race, class, and gender in the United States (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
MLA: Rothenberg, Paula S. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. 3rd Ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2008. Print.
The entries and in-text citations for other sources (websites, journal articles, unpublished drafts, etc.) and sources with more than one author or no author at all also look different for APA and MLA, but to specify them all will take a while. That is why they both had whole guidebooks published!
The major differences in citations can be summarized as follows:
- APA requires a year of publication for in-text citation, a comma after the author’s name, and a p. before the page number. MLA does not.
- APA does not capitalize the entire title of the cited work. MLA does.
- APA puts publication date and edition in parentheses, MLA does not.
- APA requires only initials of the author’s first and second names, while MLA requires full first name in a complete citation entry.
Other differences between the styles are the following:
- APA calls the list of sources used for your paper “References” while MLA calls it “Works Cited”
- APA requires a separate title page, while MLA only requires a header on the first page and a centered title.
- APA requires a running head with left-aligned paper title and right-aligned page number, whereas MLA requires a running head consisting of author’s name and page number both right-aligned
When to Use APA or MLA in Academia
When to use MLA or APA for your paper largely depends on the field of studies, you are currently working in.
APA book citation is used primarily for social sciences: psychology, sociology, communications, history, etc. It is also often used in other fields, such as medicine and business. Due to its ubiquity, it became a default for many scientific journals and academic papers written by students.
MLA citation format is mostly used in humanities: linguistics, literature, media, cultural studies, art, theater, and other related disciplines.
That means, if you have no guidelines and no other indications, let the field define the style. For scientific studies, where it is important to have up-to-date sources, APA with its focus on publication year is most appropriate. For humanities, with their attention to original texts as works of art, it is often important to reference a particular place in the source. Therefore, the MLA with its focus on page numbers will be more convenient for the reader, who may need to consult the original text.
Should I Use APA or MLA Format?
The short answer to this is you should always look at the guidelines you were issued with every particular task. If your specific assignment doesn’t have any stylistic requirements, look for the course guidelines issued at the start of the semester. If those seem to be lacking as well, there must be a set of standards chosen as default by your school. Consult your Writing Center if you are in doubt.
Colleges and universities often adopt one style for all the courses, and most often it’s the APA style. This is understandable since it is easier to adopt one style than keep switching back and forth between two or more.
That said, there is nothing inherently better or worse about MLA and APA formatting compared to one another. If you are trying to determine is MLA or APA easier, then the level of difficulty is essentially the same.
On things is certain – you should be consistent within the paper. If you have chosen one format over another for a particular work, stick to it.