DEALING WITH TITLES IN MLA FORMAT
by Dr. Harold William Halbert
The conventions of properly marking a title in MLA style can seem confusing, but the basic issues deal with 1) capitalization and 2) marking the title.
The standard conventions for capitalizing a title in MLA style are straightforward:
- The first letter of every word is capitalized except for articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions.
- Articles ("a," "an," and "the"), coordinating conjunctions ("for," "and," "nor," "but," "or," "yet," and "so"), and prepositions (words such as "on," "above," "below," "to," "throughout," etc.) are NOT capitalized.
- The first word is always capitalized, regardless of if it is an article or preposition.
Note that sometimes writers encounter titles that do not follow these conventions while conducting research. Databases often capitalize the entire title of an article or book, while other types of "styles" (like the AP style or the APA style) only capitalize the first word. You must change the capitalization of the title to MLA style if you reference the title of a work in your paper.
Marking the Title:
There are three possible ways to mark a title: the use of underlining/italics, quotation marks, or no mark at all. The following general rules of thumb may help writers conceptualize the difference between the three demarcations:
- Underline or italicize large works or works that contain other works.
- Use quotation marks on shorter works.
- Do not mark sacred texts or political documents such as laws, acts, treaties, or declarations.
The following chart offers specific types of texts and their demarcations:
|Underline/Italic||Quotation Marks||No Marks|
|Novels, books, anthologies||Short stories, essays, and chapter titles.||Religious texts|
|Magazines, newspapers, and journals||Individual articles|
|Films, TV shows, radio programs||Individual episodes of shows or programs|
|Web sites||Individual web pages|
|Epic poems||Regular poems|
|Pamphlets or sermons|
|Albums, named symphonies, ballets||Individual songs||Numbered musical compositions|
|Names of specific ships, spacecraft, or aircraft||Type of ship, spacecraft, or aircraft|
|Supreme Court Cases||Legal documents, treaties, acts, and declarations|
Note that underlining and italics signify the same type of mark. Many traditional professors prefer underling because when the MLA guidelines were first established, italics was not available on typewriters. In my class, you can use either underlining or italics, but you must be consistent: once you use underlining, stick with it. Never use BOTH italics and underlining.
Your Own Title:
Your own title for papers and other writings should follow the MLA rules on capitalization. Do not use italics, underlining, or quotation marks on it. Instead, it should appear centered one single-spaced line below the identification information and one single-spaced line above the first line of the paper. Do not increase the font size.
Titles in Titles:
If a title contains another title within it, confusion can occur. Follow the following rules to avoid confusion:
- An underlined title in an underlined title requires that the line be removed from internal title (example: Understanding The Sun Also Rises).
- A quoted title inside a quoted title requires the use of single quotation marks around the internal title (example: "The Dandy in Cather's 'Paul's Case'").
Owned by Dr. Harold William Halbert
Based on MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (6th Edition)
Others are welcome to use this document provided credit is given to me.
It can be confusing to know which titles get italicized and which get quotation marks when citing them in your writing. An easy rule to remember is that short titles and sections of work, such as a chapter title in a book or an episode in a TV show, get quotation marks while larger titles or works, such as a book title or an album, are italicized. However, which one you use may depend on the style and format of writing you are following.
Why Use Italics and Quotation Marks in Titles?
Italics and quotation marks are generally used to set a composition title apart from the text surrounding it. For example, if you were writing the sentence "I read The Cat in the Hat," it wouldn't necessarily be clear what the title was, or even that there was a title at all.
So, italics and quotation marks make the title stand out. A sentence such as "I read The Cat in the Hat" or "I read "The Cat in the Hat" today" is a lot clearer.
Should you set off a title with italics or should you set it off with quotation marks? Well, there are rules for that.
Rules for Using Italics and Quotation Marks in Titles
There are several different writing style guides: The Modern Language Association (MLA) is the style generally used in arts and humanities papers; the American Psychological Association (APA) is used for social sciences; the Associated Press Stylebook (AP) is commonly used in magazines, newspapers and the internet; and the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), one of the most well-known formats, is followed in a wide variety of disciplines from publishing to science.
Each of the style guides have their own rules when it comes to formatting titles. AP style is one of the simpler styles to remember, as it does not use italics in composition titles at all.
All formats except AP recommend the following titles should be in italics:
- Ballets, Operas, Symphonies
- Comic strips
- Exhibitions at a museum
- Aircraft and spacecraft
All formats except APA recommend that the following titles should be in quotation marks:
- Book chapters
- Names of video games
- Single episodes of TV and radio shows
- Unpublished writing such as manuscripts or lectures
- Album tracks or singles
- Podcast episodes
- Short stories and poems
APA differs from other formats in that it does not use either quotation marks or italics for titles of shorter works, such as essays that are in collections, lectures or journal articles. These shorter works are formatted in regular type.
MLA and Chicago, while agreeing on most citation styles, diverge on some points. In MLA the titles of online databases should be italicized; Chicago style says to set those in regular type. MLA says that all websites should be italicized while Chicago style says they should be in regular type.
When Not to Use Italics or Quotation Marks
There are certain titles of things that should not be in italics or quotation marks. The following titles should always be set in regular type:
- Scriptures of major religions
- Constitutional documents
- Legal documents
- Traditional games (such as football, hopscotch or blackjack)
- Commercial products (such as Cocoa Puffs)
- Political documents
- Names of artifacts
- Names of buildings
Print and Online Style Differences
Italicizing is easy to do on the computer, but not practical when you are hand writing something. In such cases, underlining is still used and is the same as writing a title in italics.
When formatting titles for the web, be aware that you should go with whatever style is most visually appealing. Online formats tend to be less formal in style compared to print materials. Styling for the web is about attracting visitors to the site so make the title stand out without looking clunky in order to get more attention.
Determine What to Use
By practicing the above rules for using italics and quotation marks you will find that it will become easier to determine what you should use. If you are uncertain about what to use, ask yourself if the title of a work appears inside a larger body of work or if it can stand alone. If the title belongs inside a larger body of work, use quotation marks. If the title is for a body of work that stands alone, it should be in italics. And remember that consistency is key, whichever style you choose.
To learn about which words should be capitalized in a title read YourDictionary's article on Rules for Capitalization in Titles.