APA vs MLA: What Are the Differences?

In academic writing, there are two major style guides: APA and MLA, each with its own citation style. They both have the goal of ensuring clarity and consistency in scholarly works, but they have distinct rules and formats. Let’s take a look.

APA and MLA: The Major Distinctions

On the whole, APA and MLA are used in different areas of study. 

APA, which stands for American Psychological Association, is widely used in the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, and anthropology. APA is known for its author-date citation style. (More on that later.)

MLA style, developed by the Modern Language Association (hence “MLA”), is prevalent in the humanities, arts, and literature. MLA uses an author-page citation style.

APA and MLA also have differences in their rules regarding formatting. For example, in APA, headings are written in sentence case, whereas in MLA, headings are written in title case.

Let’s explore these distinctions with some examples.

APA vs. MLA: In-Text Citations

In both APA and MLA style, a writer cites their source in parentheses, contained within the punctuation of the sentence. 

APA In-Text Citation

APA in-text citation uses the author’s last name and the publication year.

For example: 

Frankenstein’s monster was, like, totally angry (Shelley, 1818).

It turns out that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” (Newton, 1687).

Notice that the APA citation follows this format: author’s last name + comma + publication year.

MLA In-Text Citation

MLA in-text citation uses the author’s last name and the page number.

For example: 

Frankenstein’s monster was, like, totally angry (Shelley 123).

It turns out that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” (Newton 11).

Notice that the MLA citation follows this format: author’s last name + page number. There is no comma.

Important: Note that in both reference styles, when quoting the source directly, the citation does not go inside the quotation marks.

APA vs. MLA: A Reference Page vs. A Works Cited Page

APA and MLA have different guidelines for listing sources at the end of a document.

APA References Page

APA uses what is called a “References” page, and in it, you list all sources alphabetically by the author’s last name.

  • The word “References” (without quotation marks) should be centered at the top of the page.
  • Sources—even titles of books—are written in sentence case, with only proper nouns capitalized. 
  • Italicize titles of longer works (e.g., books, edited collections, names of newspapers, and so on).
  • Do not italicize, underline, or put quotes around the titles of shorter works such as chapters in books or essays in edited collections.
  • Include the name of the publisher.

Here’s the format of an APA citation:

Last Name, First Name. (Year of publication). Title in sentence case. Publisher.

Here’s an example of an APA citation:

Tolkein, J.R.R. (1954). The fellowship of the ring. Allen & Unwin.

MLA: Works Cited Page

MLA uses a “Works Cited” page, and, like APA, it is alphabetized by the author’s last name.

  • The words “Works Cited” (without quotation marks) should be centered at the top of the page. 
  • Sources are written in title case (which will typically be the same capitalization as the source itself).
  • Use italics for titles of larger works (books, magazines) and quotation marks for titles of shorter works (poems, articles).
  • The title is followed by the city of publication, the publisher, and the publication date.

Here’s the format of an MLA citation:

Last Name, First Name. Title of Book. City of Publication, Publisher, Publication Date.

Here’s an example of an MLA citation:

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. London, Allen & Unwin, 1954.

Key Takeaways

APA (American Psychological Association)

  • Widely embraced in the social sciences.
  • Uses author-date citation.
  • Has a “References” page.

MLA (Modern Language Association):

  • Prevalent in humanities, arts, and literature.
  • Uses author-page citation.
  • Has a “Works Cited” page.

FAQs about APA and MLA

Which style is used for what subject?

APA: Primarily used in social sciences, education, and related fields. Focuses on concise, objective writing and emphasizes empirical evidence.

MLA: Primarily used in humanities like languages, literature, and media studies. Focuses on analyzing and interpreting texts and ideas.

How do in-text citations differ?

APA: Author’s last name and publication year (Smith, 2023). For quotes, add the page number.

MLA: Author’s last name and page number (Smith 23). No year in citations unless the source lacks a clear publication date.

What about reference lists?

APA: Titled “References,” alphabetized by author’s last name, includes detailed publication information like edition and DOI.

MLA: Titled “Works Cited,” alphabetized by the first word of the title or author’s last name, uses a shorter format with less emphasis on publication details.

Does one style require a title page?

APA: Yes, with specific formatting including paper title, author information, and course details.

MLA: Not for shorter pieces—a header on the first page with author, course, and date is used instead. For longer pieces, yes. 

APA and MLA: Just Scratching the Surface

This is only a brief introduction to these two style guides. For further information, we recommend the Purdue Online Writing Lab, known as OWL, or getting yourself a great editor, like those of us here at EditorNinja!

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