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MLA Writing Style


Use commas before coordinating conjunctions: (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet), Unless they are joining short independent clauses, then comma usage is optional.

Ex.: The poem is sentimental, yet the poet takes a pragmatic view of death.

Commas may be omitted when the coordinating conjunction is connecting short, independent clauses. 

Ex.: Congress passed a bill and the president signed it into law.

Use commas between coordinate adjectives (descriptors that modify the same term):

Ex.: Critics praise the novel's unaffected, unadorned style. (Unaffected and unadorned both modify the word style.)

Adjectives that describe size, color, age, material, temperature, and shape do not require commas.

Ex.: seven metal stools

Use commas to set off parenthetical comments:

Ex.:  The Ming dynasty, for example, lasted nearly three hundred years.

Use commas after long introductory phrases and clauses.

            Example phrase: After years of intensive research for her dissertation, Amy Vuong received her PhD. 

            Example clause: Although theorists of comedy tend to agree that there is no universal sense of humor, they note that what most forms of                                            comedy have in common is a sense of incongruity. 

Use a comma with a contrasting phrase:

Ex. Julio, not his mother, sets the plot in motion. 

Use a comma to separate a series of words, phrases, or clauses: 

            Ex.: words: Ta-Nehisi Coates has written books, comics, and works of journalism.

            Ex.: phrases: Anne Frank's diary has been translated into many languages, adapted for the screen, and turned into a play. 

            Ex.: clauses: In the Great Depression, millions of people lost their jobs, businesses failed, and charitable institutions closed their doors. 

Use commas with dates and locations:

            Ex.; month-day-year style: Roberto Bolaño was born on April 28,1953, and died on July 15, 2003.

Do not use commas in day-month-year style, or between a month and a year, or a month and a season: 

            Ex.: Robert Bolaño was born on 28 April 1953 and died on 15 July 2003.

            Ex.: The events of July 1789 are as familiar to the French as those of July 1776 are to Americans. 

            Ex.: I passed my oral exams in spring 2007.

Use commas with nonrestrictive modifiers: Modifiers are clauses, words, or word phrases that give 'extra' information about parts of a sentence.

nonrestrictive modifier does not change the basic information that is being conveyed by a sentence. It gives additional, but non-essential information which could be omitted, thus needs commas.

Ex.: The teacher, who answers every question patiently, asked if the students had any more questions. 

restrictive modifier does give essential information to the reader, thus if it were omitted, would change the meaning of the sentence.

Ex.: The child to the left raised her hand.

Incorrect Comma Usage: 

  • between the subject and predicate of a sentence
  • between the object and the verb of a sentence
  • between parts of a compound subject
  • between parts of a compound object
  • between two verbs that share a subject
  • between two subordinate elements that are parallel 

Semicolons and Colons

Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses.

        Ex.:  Don't touch the stove; it's hot.

Semicolons are also used in sentences containing complex lists (lists already including commas, such as cities and states, or people and job descriptions).

        Ex.: Present at the symposium were Henri-Guillaume Durand, the art critic; Sam Brown, the Daily Tribune reporter; and Maria Rosa, the        conceptual artist.

When to use a colon:

Colons are use to connect two independent clauses, but can also be used to elaborate upon a point made in a sentence. Do not capitalize the word after the use of a colon unless it is a proper noun. 

        Ex.: The plot is founded on deception: the protagonist has a secret identity.

        Ex.: The Musicology syllabus includes three genres: jazz, blues, and hip-hop.         

Dashes and Parentheses

When to use dashes and parentheses:

Dashes or parentheses can be used interchangeably, and are used to signal an interruption of thought and provide additional information.  

Use dashes of parenthesis to enclose an interruption in a sentence:

            Ex.: The play's "hero" (the townspeople see him as a hero, but he is the focus of the author's satire) introduces himself as a veteran of the                              war. To prevent the misreading of information: 

             Ex.: The qualities of Corinne's character--honor, patience, and kindness--are lacking in her fellow countrywoman, the play's antagonist.

Use dashes of parentheses to introduce an elaboration or an example:

             Ex.: The play's lead had one thing on her mind--namely, making up for lost time. 

A dash may be used to introduce a list:

            Ex.: The course covers three epics from different literary traditions--the Odyssey, the Tale of the Heike, and Omeros. 


Hyphens indicate relation between words, joining at least two words together, or to join prefixes to words. 

**A note about compound words: not all compound words--words formed from more than one word--use hyphens.

            Ex.: hard drive, hard-boiled, hardheaded.

If a compound word is not found in the dictionary, it should be written as two words.

When using adverb-adjective compounds: Compound adjectives that begin with an adverbs such as better, best , ill, lower, little, or well should              be hyphenated. 

Ex.: ill-fated, better-suited, little-known

Do not hyphenate adverb-adjective compounds that include an adverb ending in -ly, or when the adverb-adjective compound begins with the words too, very, or much.

When using number-noun combinations:

Fifteen-day trip

twentieth-century architecture

When using some prepositional phrases:

on-campus activities

For clarity:

three-layer cakes vs. three layer cakes.

Incorrect hyphen usage:

  • when using comparatives and superlatives (less expensive, most likely)
  • when using foreign language terms (ad hoc)
  • when using familiar compound terms (high school, civil rights legislation)
  • when using proper nouns ( African American, Pulitzer Prize ceremony)

**The dictionary is also a great place to go if you're unsure about whether or not to hyphenate words!


Apostrophes are used to indicate possession and can be used to form some plurals. They are also used to form contractions (can't, wouldn't), which should not be used in academic and research writing.

Singular and plural nouns:

To create the singular possessive, insert an apostrophe before the 's':

a poem's meter

To create the plural possessive, insert an apostrophe after the 's':

firefighters' trucks

To create possessive forms of nouns that end in 's', insert the apostrophe after the 's' (both singular and plural):

ethics' contribution to philosophy

To create possessive forms of Irregular plural nouns, insert the apostrophe before the 's':

women's studies

            To create shared possessive forms of nouns, the second noun gets the apostrophe before the 's':

Palmer and Colton's book on European history is on the syllabus.

   Do not use an apostrophe to form a plural possessive for an abbreviation or a number.





Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are generally used to quote from a source, or style the titles of works. In an academic paper, quotation marks also have two other main uses.

Use quotation marks to flag provisional meaning:

Quotation marks can be put around words or statements in order to alert readers to skepticism, disapproval, or purposeful misuse of those words or statements. Do not use quotation marks in this way in your writing often, because it can be misunderstood or misread by the reader. 

     Ex.: Many "experts" offer advice on how to lose weight.

Use quotation marks to mark the translation of foreign words or phrases:

Use quotation marks to indicate you have translated a foreign word or phrase. The foreign word or phrase always goes in italics--regardless of whether or not the word(s) are being translated or not--and the translation can either be in double quotation marks without parentheses, with the period inside the closing quotation mark, or in parentheses inside single quotation marks. 

     Ex.: The first Spanish expression I learned was irse toto en humo " to go up in smoke."

     Ex.: The first Spanish expression I learned was irse toto en humo ('to go up in smoke'). 


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