MLA Format vs APA Format: What Are the Key Differences?

You have a paper to write, and you know it will take hours. You don’t even want to think about the time you’ll spend figuring out how to format your paper.

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Fortunately, with this quick guide, you don’t have to. We’ll explain the key differences between MLA Format vs APA Format, including when and how to use each one.

MLA Format vs APA Format: Which One Should You Use?

MLA and APA are two of the most common formats for academic writing. While similar in some ways, though, they are not interchangeable.

MLA stands for the Modern Language Association. It makes sense, then, that writers in the arts and humanities use MLA format.

Meanwhile, writers in scientific disciplines use APA format. In fact, APA stands for the American Psychological Association, a professional group of social scientists.

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So if you’re writing about literature, art, or history, choose MLA. If you’re writing about psychology or biology, choose APA.

Formatting Citations in MLA vs. APA

Citations—and the guidelines that apply to them—include internal citations and a list of citations at the end of your paper.

Using APA vs. MLA format means presenting your citations differently in key—but sometimes subtle—ways.

Internal Citations

Internal citations, or in-text citations, appear in the body of your paper.

In both MLA format and APA format, you’ll place internal citations inside parentheses. Also in both formats, you’ll begin with the author’s last name.

In MLA format, you’ll include only the author’s last name and the page number where you drew your information. You’ll place these two items inside parentheses, and you’ll use no other punctuation inside the citation.

Take the following example of an internal citation using MLA format:

(Smith 17)

In APA format, you’ll again begin with the author’s last name. However, you’ll follow it with the year of publication and then the page number. Importantly, unlike MLA format, which uses no punctuation inside the internal citation, APA in-text citations separate each of these items with a comma. It also puts the abbreviation “p.” before the numeral.

Take the following example of an internal citation for the same source using APA format:

(Smith, 2020, p. 17)


In both MLA and APA, you’ll list all of your sources on a separate final page in your paper. In both formats, you’ll double space this list.

MLA format calls this list of citations your Works Cited page. To begin formatting this page, you’ll center the words “Works Cited” at the top of your citations list.

Meanwhile, APA format calls this list of citations the References page. If you’re using APA, you’ll center the word “References” at the top of the page.

As with the internal citations, MLA and APA include much of the same information in the full citation entries. Yet they present that information differently.

Author’s Name

Both MLA and APA begin with the author’s last name first. However, for a source with only one author, MLA provides the last name followed by the full first name. A comma separates the first and last names, and a period ends this part of the entry.

Take the following example for a source with only one author:

Smith, John.

For a source with two authors, MLA presents the first author’s name using the above format. The second author’s full name follows. However, the second author’s name appears with the first name first.

Take the following example for a source with two authors:

Smith, John and Margaret Jones.

Finally, for a source with more than two authors, MLA again begins with the first author. It then uses the abbreviation “et al.,” which means “and others,” for the remaining authors.

Take the following example for a source with three or more authors:

Smith, John, et al.

Notice the additional comma between the author’s first name and the abbreviation.

When presenting your sources, APA likewise begins with the first author’s last name. In APA, however, only initials follow the full last name.

For sources with one author, you would simply type:

Smith, J.

For sources with two to twenty authors, you would include this information in this order for all authors. Take the following example for a source with two authors:

Smith, J., & Jones, M.

Notice that a comma separates the last names from the first initials, and a period follows each initial. An additional comma and an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and” separates the two author’s names.

Title of the Work

In both APA and MLA format, the title of the work is italicized in a reference or works cited entry. However, the title of the work is capitalized differently in each.

MLA uses title case, while APA uses sentence case. Like a sentence, sentence case capitalizes only the first word of the title. In title case, meanwhile, the first word and every major word that follows is capitalized.

An MLA title entry would look like this:

The Joy of Writing.

An APA title entry would look like this:

The joy of writing.

As before, a period ends this part of the entry in both MLA and APA formats.

Publication Information

The publisher and year of publication round out a basic citation entry in MLA and APA formats.

MLA simply adds this information after the title of the work. A basic MLA citation would look like this:

Smith, J. The Joy of Writing. Education Press, 2020.

In APA, the publisher follows the title of the work. However, the year of publication comes earlier. In an APA citation, you’ll put the year of publication in parentheses between the author and the title.

Take the following example:

Smith, J. (2020). The joy of writing. Education Press.

MLA Format vs APA Format

MLA vs. APA: Other Scenarios and Other Key Differences

The above guide introduces the basic format for citations using APA and MLA. Each format accommodates other scenarios—including different types of source materials—with variations in the above guidelines.

Each format also includes additional differences.

For example, APA requires a title page with your name, the title of the paper, and your institution. MLA does not require a title page. Instead, it requires a header in the top left corner of the first page. This header includes your name, your teacher’s name, the class name, and the date. The date takes the format of DD Month YYYY. The title of the paper appears centered below this header.

Another difference addresses section headings. If your paper includes headings and subheadings, APA requires that they follow a particular format. MLA, meanwhile, does not specify a format for section headings.

Finally, MLA requires a running head, which consists of your last name and the page number at the top right corner of every page. APA requires only the page number.

MLA and APA: They Both End in “A,” and so Can Your Paper If You Follow These Guidelines

Now that you know the key differences between MLA vs. APA, you can use the best style for your assignment. And you can format your paper properly.

If you need an extra set of eyes to double-check your work—including the formatting and writing, our expert editorial team can help.

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