MLA: It’s a Changing World


In the 1977 edition of the MLA Handbook, the guidelines, according to Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, suggested that “fresh black ribbon and clean type are essential.” The instructions also advised against using “thin paper except for a carbon copy” (qtd. in MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers 7th ed. xv). The titles of the previously mentioned books would not have been in italics, but underlined. That was a more recent change.

The first “MLA Style Sheet” was published in 1951 by the Modern Language Association, and through the years this style sheet has grown into an almost three-hundred-page handbook, now in its seventh edition, arguably the most-used resource for students in the liberal arts and humanities. Most students coming into college today, unless they are fans of Mad Men, would most likely have no idea what black ribbon or carbon copy refers to. I learned to type on a typewriter (yes, I’m old) and the only web I knew came from a spider. With the explosion of the internet in the last thirty years, changes to citation styles have been as rapid as the rise in hemlines. The returning non-traditional student who has been away from school for a few years may find many of the rules of MLA style they thought they knew have changed.

Ellipsis ( . . . )

OLD:   The old MLA Handbook recommended placing an ellipsis (three periods ( . . . ) with a space before each and a space after the last) in square brackets to a distinguish between an ellipsis  which the writer has added and an ellipsis that is actually in the original text:

Ex: “Smith […] found the outmoded research […] a hindrance to his formula” (Jones 55).

NEW: The current guidelines state to only use the ellipsis when omitting material; brackets are no longer suggested.  

Ex:  In an essay on urban legends, Jan Harold Brunvand notes that “some individuals make a point of learning every recent rumor or tale . . . and in a short time a lively exchange of details occurs” (78).

MLA notes to only use brackets if adding brackets would clarify your use of ellipses.

Underlining is Gone

OLD: Titles of larger works, such as books or magazines, have always been underlined.

Ex:      The Catcher in the Rye.

Ex:      Omaha World Herald.

NEW: Larger works are now italicized. No more underlining.

Ex: The Catcher in the Rye.

Ex: Omaha World Herald.

Database Research

Access Information

Lots of changes here. Thirty years ago, this type of entry didn’t even exist. Now, often the majority of student research is done on the web utilizing their college’s database system.

OLD:  Previously, an article originally published in print form that was retrieved from a library database, such as EBSCO or Lexis-Nexis, would always need to have the access information of the library name and location the writer retrieved it from.

 Ex: “Prophetic Criticism: Oscar Wilde and His Postmodern Heirs.”  Contemporary Literature.  25.2 (1984) : 250-259.  JSTOR.  Criss Lib., Omaha, 12 July 2006  http://www.jstor. org.

NEW: No more access information is necessary, other than your retrieval date. Only include the name of the database, and italicize. You’ll still need the date of access at the end of the entry:

Ex: Langhamer, Claire. “Love and Courtship in Mid-Twentieth-Century England.” Historical Journal 50.1 (2007): 173-96. ProQuest. Web. 27 May 2009.

Print or Web?

OLD: URLs were required when using web sources at the end of the entry:


NEW: URLS are no longer required. All web-based sources will simply state “Web” immediately before the date of access.

Ex: Junge, Wolfgang, and Nathan Nelson. “Nature’s Rotary Electromotors.” Science 29 Apr.  2005: 642-44. Science Online. Web. 5 Mar. 2009.

(*Note:  Some instructors argue that URLs are needed to more easily locate the web source; however, most web searchers now use search engines as opposed to typing in long, complicated URLs, which was the rationale for discontinuing their use. Always follow instructor preferences.  If your instructor requires the use of URLs, place in angle brackets after the date of access and break URLs only after slashes.)

Page Numbers and Publishing Information

OLD: When the only sources were print, page and publishing information were easily available. With the advent of the Web, publishing and page numbers aren’t as common.

NEW: Special abbreviations should be used to indicate page, date, or other information is not available. Use n.p. to indicate no publisher or publishing dates. Use n.d. when a Web page does not provide a publication date. When an entry requires that you provide a page but no pages are provided in the source (such as online-only resources), use the abbreviation n. pag.

Ex:      “Newborn Feeding.” Welcome to Gerber. Gerber Corporation. n.d. Web.  18 Oct. 2008.

Ex:      Dolby, Nadine. “Research in Youth Culture and Policy: Current Conditions and Future Directions.” Social Work and Society: The International Online-Only Journal 6.2 (2008): n. pag. Web. 20 May 2009.


With the rapid introduction of new technologies and the continued desire to simplify research, you can bet more changes are to come. But hold on to those old MLA Handbooks: I’ve heard the typewriter is making a comeback.


 (Some citation examples and other information taken from Purdue Online Writing Lab.)




2 thoughts on “MLA: It’s a Changing World

  1. I actually blog as well and I am creating something very close to this article, “MLA: Its a Changing World Writing Center Underground” . Will you mind in case Iemploy a number of
    your own suggestions? Regards ,Jack


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