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Published by at January 17th, 2024 , Revised On January 23, 2024

When To Use MLA Vs APA

Two predominant citation styles in academic writing, like thesis or dissertation stand out: the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). Each style is a set of guidelines designed to standardize the citation and formatting of sources, ensuring consistency and clarity in scholarly communication.




Author Format

Last name, First initial.

Last name, First name.

Title Format

Title Case.

Title Case.

Publication Date


(Day Month Year).

Page Numbers

(p. xx) or (pp. xx-xx)


In-text Citations

(Author, Year)

(Author xx)

Works Cited/References

Alphabetical order by author's last name.

Alphabetical order by author's last name.


Include DOI or URL if available.

Include URL.

Italicizing Titles

Italicize book and journal titles.

Italicize book and journal titles.

Common Usage

Common in social sciences, business, and education.

Common in humanities, literature, and arts.


The Modern Language Association (MLA) style is widely used in the humanities and liberal arts, providing a structured approach to citing sources in research papers, essays, and other scholarly works. Initially developed by the Modern Language Association, this style emphasizes the author’s name and page number in in-text citations, with a detailed Works Cited page listing all sources.


The American Psychological Association (APA) style, on the other hand, is a prominent citation guide used in the social sciences and natural sciences. Created by the American Psychological Association, this style emphasizes clarity, conciseness, and objectivity. APA uses a parenthetical author-date citation system and compiles all sources on a References page.

Importance Of Proper Citation Styles In Academic Writing

Accurate and consistent citation is fundamental to maintaining the integrity of academic writing. Proper citation serves multiple purposes:

Acknowledging Sources

  • Citations give credit to the original authors for their ideas, theories, or findings.
  • They acknowledge the intellectual contributions that form the foundation of a writer’s work.

Avoiding Plagiarism

  • Citation styles provide a framework to cite sources appropriately, helping writers avoid plagiarism.
  • Plagiarism, the uncredited use of someone else’s work, is a serious ethical breach in academic writing.

Ensuring Credibility

  • Proper citations enhance the credibility of the author’s work by allowing readers to verify and trace the sources referenced.
  • Credible sources contribute to the strength and validity of an academic argument.

Facilitating Communication

  • Standardized citation styles promote clear communication within the academic community.
  • They enable researchers to share and build upon each other’s work by providing a common language for citation.

Meeting Academic Standards

  • Adhering to specific citation styles aligns with academic conventions and standards.
  • Different disciplines in universities in Canada may have preferences for particular citation styles, and adherence reflects a commitment to scholarly norms.

Understanding MLA

The Modern Language Association (MLA) style is a widely recognized and used set of guidelines for academic writing, specifically tailored to the fields of literature, language, and the humanities. Developed by the Modern Language Association, this citation style provides a systematic approach to citing sources, formatting papers, and acknowledging the intellectual contributions of others.

The primary purpose of MLA is to establish a standardized method for scholars and students to present their research and ideas clearly and consistently. By prescribing citation and document formatting rules, MLA ensures that academic writing is accessible, organized, and ethically grounded.

Common Usage In Humanities And Liberal Arts

MLA finds its common usage in disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history, art, and other areas within the humanities and liberal arts. The style’s adaptability to various forms of humanistic expression makes it a preferred choice for scholars and students in these fields. Whether crafting essays, research papers, or literary analyses, humanities students often turn to MLA to structure their academic work.

The key elements of MLA citation are:

In-text citations

In MLA, in-text citations serve to provide brief yet crucial information about the source of a particular idea or quotation within the body of the text. Typically, these citations include the author’s last name and the page number from which the information is drawn. For instance: (Khan 45). This practice allows readers to easily locate the source on the Works Cited page.

Works Cited page

The Works Cited page is a comprehensive list of all the sources referenced in a paper. It is placed at the end of the document and provides detailed bibliographic information for each source, allowing readers to verify and explore the referenced materials. 

The Works Cited page follows specific formatting guidelines, including the author’s name, source title, publication information, and other relevant details.

Understanding APA

The American Psychological Association (APA) style is a widely adopted set of guidelines for academic writing, particularly within the social sciences and natural sciences. Developed by the American Psychological Association, APA provides a systematic framework for citing sources, formatting papers, and organizing research that promotes clarity, objectivity, and precision.

The primary purpose of APA is to establish a standardized approach to writing and documentation within the scientific community. By emphasizing clarity and conciseness, APA allows researchers, psychologists, and social and natural sciences scholars to communicate their ideas precisely and ensure that their work can be easily understood and verified.

Common Usage In Social Sciences And Sciences

APA is commonly used in finance thesis, psychology, sociology, education, business, botany papers, and various natural and social sciences. Its structured approach to citation and formatting aligns with the demands of scientific communication, where precision and clarity are paramount. Researchers and scholars in these fields turn to APA to ensure that their work adheres to the established conventions of their disciplines.

The key elements of APA citation include the following:

In-text citations

In APA style, in-text citations follow a parenthetical author-date format, where the author’s last name and the publication year are included. For example (Khan, 2019). This method allows readers to quickly identify the source of information and cross-reference it with the detailed information provided on the References page.

References page

The References page is a thorough list of all sources cited within a paper. It is positioned at the end of the document and provides detailed bibliographic information for each source. The information typically includes the author’s name, publication date, title of the source, and other relevant details. The References page in APA style is organized alphabetically and follows specific formatting guidelines to ensure consistency.

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When To Use MLA

MLA is the preferred citation style in several academic disciplines within the humanities and liberal arts. Common disciplines include literature, philosophy, history, art, and languages. Scholars and students in these fields often adhere to MLA guidelines to maintain consistency and convey information in a manner suitable for their respective subjects.

MLA is well-suited for citing a wide range of sources commonly found in the humanities. These sources include:

  • Books: MLA is particularly effective in citing books, whether they are novels, manuscripts, anthologies, or scholarly monographs.
  • Journal Articles: Academic journals in humanities and liberal arts fields are often cited using MLA format.
  • Poems and Short Stories: MLA is ideal for citing individual poems or short stories frequently encountered in literature studies.
  • Artistic Works: MLA can be used to reference paintings, sculptures, or other forms of artistic expression.

MLA Examples

  • Literary Analysis Essays: When writing an essay analyzing a piece of literature, such as a novel or poem, MLA is commonly used to cite textual evidence and provide in-depth analysis.
  • History Research Papers: Historical research papers format often adopt MLA citation, emphasizing the proper acknowledgment of historical sources and texts.
  • Philosophy Papers: Papers in philosophy that involve the analysis of philosophical texts or arguments often use MLA for citation.

When To Use APA

APA is the preferred citation style in various academic disciplines and preliminary literature reviews, especially those in the social sciences and natural sciences. Disciplines that commonly use APA include psychology, sociology, education, business, and health sciences. The style’s emphasis on clarity, objectivity, and precision aligns with the requirements of these scientific fields.

APA is well-suited for citing various sources commonly found in the social and natural sciences. These sources include:

  • Research Articles: APA is extensively used for citing research articles published in academic journals.
  • Empirical Studies: Studies conducted in psychology, sociology, and related fields often cite APA.
  • Academic Papers in Education: APA is preferred for citing educational research and academic papers.
  • Scientific Reports: APA is commonly used for citing scientific reports in the natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry.

APA Examples

  • Psychology Research Papers: When conducting and presenting research in psychology, APA is the preferred style for ensuring clarity and precision in communication.
  • Sociology Literature Reviews: Literature reviews in sociology often adopt APA citation to organize and present a synthesis of existing research.
  • Business Reports: Business and management reports, including those in marketing or organizational behaviour, frequently cite APA.

Key Differences Between MLA And APA

Some of the key differences between MLA and APA are discussed below.

Differences In Formatting And Layout 

  • Page Header:
    • MLA typically features a header on the left side of the paper with the author’s name and page number.
    • APA uses a running head on the right side, which includes a shortened title and page number.
  • Title Page:
    • APA often requires a title page with specific information like the title, author’s name, institutional affiliation, and an author note.
    • MLA generally does not mandate a title page unless specified by the instructor.
  • Font and Size:
    • MLA typically recommends using a legible font like Times New Roman in 12-point size.
    • APA generally prefers a sans-serif font like Arial or Calibri in 12-point size.

Citations And Referencing Variations

  • In-text Citations:
    • MLA employs parenthetical in-text citations with the author’s last name and page number (Khan 45).
    • APA uses parenthetical author-date citations with the author’s last name and the publication year (Khan, 2019).
  • Works Cited or References Page:
    • MLA uses a “Works Cited” page that lists sources alphabetically with specific formatting.
    • APA uses a “References” page, also alphabetized, with distinct formatting guidelines for each source type.
  • Italics vs. Quotation Marks:
    • In MLA, titles of larger works (books, movies) are italicized, while titles of shorter works (articles, poems) are in quotation marks.
    • In APA, italics are used for titles of longer works, and shorter works are in title case and not enclosed in quotation marks.

Peculiar Rules Unique To Each Style

Medium in MLA:

  • MLA may require the inclusion of the medium (print, web, etc.) in bibliographic entries.


  • APA may involve the use of Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) for online sources when available.

Publication Information Order:

  • MLA typically lists the author’s name, title, publisher, and date in that order.
  • APA follows the order of author, date, title, and publisher.

How To Choose Between MLA And APA

  1. Consider your academic discipline.
  • MLA:
    • Preferred in humanities and liberal arts disciplines.
    • Commonly used for literature, philosophy, history, and related fields.
  • APA:
    • Preferred in social sciences and natural sciences.
    • Commonly used for psychology, sociology, education, business, and scientific research.
  1. Understand assignment requirements
  2. Learn about instructor preferences and guidelines

Tips For Proper Implementation

Here are some final tips and tricks to help you properly implement MLA and APA.

Tip 1: Familiarizing Oneself With Style Guides

  • Thorough Review: Take the time to thoroughly review the official style guides for both MLA and APA. These guides provide complete information on formatting, in-text citations, and references.
  • Style Guide Accessibility: Make a copy of the MLA Handbook (for MLA) or the American Psychological Association Publication Manual (for APA) readily accessible for quick reference.
  • Online Resources: Explore online resources provided by reputable institutions and libraries to supplement your understanding of each style.

Tip 2: Using Citation Tools And Resources

  • Citation Generators: Use online citation generators to automate the process of creating citations. Tools like Zotero, EndNote, or online generators provided by academic institutions can save time and reduce the chance of errors.
  • Online Style Guides: Many universities and academic institutions provide online style guides with examples and tutorials. Refer to these resources to clarify specific citation rules.
  • Library Support: Take advantage of library resources and support services, which often include workshops or consultations on proper citation practices.

Tip 3: Seeking Guidance From Instructors Or Writing Centers

  • Instructor Clarification: When in doubt, seek clarification from your instructor regarding citation preferences and any specific guidelines for the assignment.
  • Writing Centers: Use campus writing centers that offer guidance on citation styles. Writing tutors can provide valuable insights and assistance in mastering MLA or APA.
  • Peer Review: Consider engaging in peer review sessions where you can exchange insights and tips on proper citation with fellow students.

Frequently Asked Questions

Use APA for social and natural sciences, psychology, education, and research studies. Choose MLA for humanities, literature, philosophy, and arts. Consider assignment requirements, academic discipline, and instructor preferences to determine the appropriate citation style for academic writing.

APA (American Psychological Association) and MLA (Modern Language Association) are distinct citation styles. APA is common in social sciences, emphasizing clarity. MLA is prevalent in humanities, emphasizing authorship. They differ in formatting citations and are chosen based on academic discipline and assignment requirements.

MLA (Modern Language Association) is commonly used for English, literature, and humanities disciplines. Its emphasis on authorship and literary analysis aligns with the conventions of these fields. APA is more prevalent in social sciences and natural sciences.

APA (American Psychological Association) is primarily used by professionals and scholars in the fields of psychology, social sciences, education, business, and health sciences. It provides a standardized citation style for research articles, empirical studies, and scientific publications in these disciplines.

APA (American Psychological Association) and MLA (Modern Language Association) are citation styles used in academic writing, with specific rules for formatting and citations. Harvard is a referencing style with a focus on author-date citation but is less prescriptive in formatting, commonly used in the UK and Australia.

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