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MLA Format Style Guide: How to Build a Citation

Guidelines and Core Elements

Each entry in a works cited list should contain the core elements for that source.  According to MLA, the core elements are as follows:

1. Author

2. Title of Source

3. Title of Container

4. Other Contributors

5. Version

6. Number

7. Publisher

8. Publication Date

9. Location

Once these core elements have been identified, you can begin to build your citation.

1. Author

Works Cited entries are started with the Author's Name.  The author is usually prominently displayed near the title of the work.  Begin the entry with the author's last name, followed by a comma and the author's first name or initial.  This element is then finished with a period. 

If there are two authors, display them in the order they appear in the work. The first author is listed last name first, and the second author is listed first name first. When there are three or more authors, reverse the first author's name and follow it with a comma and "et al.".

The term author can refer to the person or the group responsible for producing the work or portion of the work you focused on.  .  If the role of that person was something other than creating the main content of the work, follow the name with the label that defines their role.  For example, if the source is an edited volume of essays, the author might be the editor.  In this case, "editor" would follow the author's name.  A work with two editors would follow the rules for a work with two authors and so on.  The same follows for translators, performers, or creators.

Pseudonyms, including online usernames, are mostly used like given names in this context.

If there is no author's name provided, do not use "Anonymous" in place of the author's name.  Instead, skip the author element and start the entry with the work's title.

Corporate authors, such as institutions, government agencies, associations or organizations, can be used in the author element.  If the corporate author is also the publisher (such as the American Psychological Association), skip the author element and simply list the organization as the publisher.

2. Title of Source

The second element in the works cited is the Title of Source.  The title will be prominently displayed in the source, and subtitles will be listed following the main title in the element.  Titles are listed exactly as they appear in the source material, except that the capitalization and punctuation are standardized.

If a title is self contained and independent, such as a book title or whole volume title, it is italicized in the element. The title of an essay, poem, or story in a collection is placed in quotation marks. If a work is normally independent but is found in a collection (such as a play in a larger collection of a writer's works), the work's title remains in italics.

The title of a periodical (journal, magazine, newspaper) is set in italics; the title of an article is placed in quotation marks.  The title of a television show is italicized and an episode is in quotation marks.

When a source is untitled, provide a generic description of it, not italicized or in quotation marks, in place of a title.  Capitalize the first word and proper nouns.  The description may include the title of another work that is connected to your source (for example, a comment on a blog post or a review of a film in a journal).

Example: Mackintosh, Charles Rennie. Chair of stained oak. 1897-1900, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A short untitled message, such as a tweet, should be reproduced in its entirety in place of a title and placed in quotation marks.  Email messages should have the subject line used as their title enclosed in quotation marks.

3. Title of Container

When the source being documented forms a part of a larger work, the larger work can be considered a "container" that holds the source.  Examples of containers include: a book that is a collection of essays or poems, a periodical (journal or newspaper), a television series, or a website made up of individual articles or posts.

An issue of a comic book is considered to be contained in its series.  If the title stands on its own, the title is italicized.  The series name, or container, is also italicized..

A container can in fact be part of a larger container itself.  Back issues of a periodical title, for example, can be found in the larger container database.  Shows and films may be found on a streaming service, such as Netflix.  Every container that is relevant to your source should be included in your citation.  The first container should be listed first, followed by the citation information for the second, as follows:

Author. Title of Source. Title of Container 1, Other contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication Date, Location. Title of Container 2, Other contributors, Version, Number, Publisher, Publication Date, Location.

4. Other Contributors

Other people who contributed to the work, but are not the main author, should be credited in the reference as contributors.  Precede each name or group of names with a description of their role.  Common descriptions include:

  • adapted by
  • directed by
  • edited by
  • illustrated by
  • introduction by
  • narrated by
  • performance by
  • translated by

Some contributors cannot be described by one of these phrases.  These roles should be expressed as a noun followed by a comma, such as "general editor, Edwin H. Cady."

Editors and translators are usually recorded in documentation, as their roles are often key to the work.

Films and television episodes often have many contributors, so include only those relevant to your project.  This is usually a key performer and the director of the work.

5. Version

If the source is notated as being a version of a work released in more than one form, you should identify the version in your entry. 

A version of a book is usually an edition.  A revised version is called a revised edition or be numbered (second edition, for example).  Books such as the Bible can have other descriptions for their versions as well (for example, Authorized King James Version).  Other examples - Expanded ed., Updated ed., 7th ed.

Works in other media may also appear in versions - unabridged version, director's cut, version 1.2.1.

6. Number

If you are consulting a work that is too long to be contained in one volume, you need to indicate the number of the volume you are using.  

If you are consulting one volume of a numbered multi-volume set, indicate volume number.

Journal issues are typically numbered, sometimes with volume and issue numbers.  Comic books are commonly numbered like journals.

Television series number their episodes and seasons.  

If your source uses a different numbering system, indicate that in your entry.

7. Publisher

The publisher is the organization primarily responsible for creating the source and making it available to the public.  If two or more organizations are named in the source and are equally responsible for the work, cite each of them, separating the names with a forward slash (/).  If only one has primary responsibility, only cite the one most responsible.

To determine the publisher of a book, look at the title page or the copyright page.

Films and television series are often produced by multiple companies.  Cite the organization with the primary responsibility.

Websites are usually produced by multiple organizations.  The publisher's name can be found at the bottom of the home page or on a page that gives information about the site.  A blog network can be considered the publisher of a blog.

A publisher's name can be omitted for the following kinds of publications, either because the publisher does not need to be given or there is no publisher:

  • A periodical
  • A work published by its author or editor
  • A website whose title is essentially the same as its publisher
  • A website not involved in producing the works it makes available (a service for user's content such as WordPress, or an archive/database like JSTOR)

8. Publication Date

When a source gives multiple publication dates, choose the date that is most relevant to your use of the source.  For example, if the source is an article found on a website or in a database, it may list both the print publication date as well as the date it was produced on the site.  If you only consult to online version of the article, cite that date as the publication date and ignore the print date.  

Include month and date with the year if it is relevant to the source. If the source includes a time stamp because it was updated after publication, you can include that in your citation.  

Some periodicals are issued by season instead of month, date, or year, e.g. Spring.

Book publication dates can be found on the title page or with the copyright information.  If a book has multiple editions, cite the date of the edition used as a reference.


9. Location

Location is determined by the medium of the work.

In print sources, the page number or range of numbers indicate the location of a text in a container such as a book or periodical.  

An online work, such as a website, will have the web address or URL as its location.  Some publishers will assign a DOI, or digital object identifier, which remains attached to a work even if the URL changes.  Citing a DOI if available is preferable to using the URL.

If a film or television episode is used, indicate disc number as the location.  For example, an episode of a documentary TV series may be on multiple discs, meaning "disc #" would be its location.

A work of art, or other physical material, has its physical location as its entry.  For example, "Museum of Modern Art, New York."