• 4-minute read
  • 2nd November 2020

A Quick Guide to Source Titles in MLA Referencing

If you’re using MLA style for a piece of academic writing, you’ll need to make sure you format source titles correctly. But how should you write titles in MLA referencing? In this post, we explain what you need to know.

Capitalisation of Titles in MLA

MLA style uses a form of title case for source titles. This means capitalising:

However, you should not capitalise articles, prepositions, or coordinating conjunctions in the middle of a title. For example:

The Secret of Success: How to Achieve Your Goals Quickly

After the Storm: Why the Weather Is Changing

Are Dogs People? Animal Psychology and Personhood

The one exception is untitled sources! For a poem with no title or a social media message, for instance, you would quote the first few words in place of a title. And, in this case, you would use the same capitalisation as shown in the source you’re quoting. For example:

In Iqbal’s 2014 poem ‘The colours and the sound’, she examines…

For all other English-language sources, though, make sure to use title case.

Italics or Quote Marks?

Most source titles in MLA are either italicised or placed in quote marks:

  • Italics – Use italics for standalone publications (e.g. books) or for ‘container’ publications (e.g. journals, websites, newspapers).
  • Quote marks – Use quote marks for titles of shorter works that appear in a container volume (e.g. articles in journals, poems in an anthology).

For example, we’d italicise Scientific American (i.e. the title of a magazine). But we’d put the title of an article from this magazine in quote marks:

Published in Scientific American in September 2020, the article ‘Water on Mars: Discovery of Three Buried Lakes Intrigues Scientists’ (O’Callaghan 14) generated new interest in the question of whether life ever existed on Mars. In particular, it raised the question of…

However, there are some exceptions to the rules above! In MLA style, titles of the following should be written without either italics or quote marks:

  • Generic references to holy books (e.g. Bible, Quran)
  • Laws and other legislation (e.g. Treaty of Versailles, Equality Act 2010)
  • Musical compositions that are identified in terms of their form, number, and key (e.g. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67)
  • Names of book series (e.g. Contemporary World Series, Bollingen Series)
  • Conferences, workshops, and courses (e.g. Annual MLA Conference)

Keep an eye out for these types of titles in your writing.

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Shortened Titles in MLA

In MLA style, the first time you mention a source in the text, give the full title (although you may want to omit a non-essential subtitle for brevity):

Haddon is known for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

But if you mention a source repeatedly in your work, you can shorten the title after the first mention to minimise repetition.

If the relationship between the full title and the shortened version is obvious, you can switch to it with no introduction:

In The Curious Incident, the protagonist…

If the abbreviation is less obvious, though, make sure to introduce it in parentheses when you give the full source title. For instance:

Beyond Good and Evil (BGE) was an important work for Nietzsche… Notably, BGE clarifies many elliptical arguments from his previous work.

Always give the full source title and subtitle in the Works Cited list, though.

Titles of Non-English Sources

Finally, MLA has two key guidelines on non-English sources:

  1. Unless you are sure your readers will understand the title of a source in a language other than English, give a translation in parentheses.
  2. Use sentence case, not title case, and follow the capitalisation conventions for the language of the source (e.g. if it is French, use French-style capitalisation rather than English).

For example, if you named a French-language book, you would write:

In Le conflit des interprétations: Essais d’herméneutique (The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics), we see Ricoeur’s…

Note, too, that the English translation follows the standard MLA capitalisation style. It is only the non-English title that you should write in sentence case, so make sure to use title case for the English version.

Expert MLA Proofreading

If you want to be sure you’ve presented source titles correctly in your work, get in touch with our MLA experts, who are always ready to help. Try our free proofreading trial today to find out more.

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