APA vs. MLA Writing Format: What’s the Difference?

Unless your ultimate career goal is to never get close to a keyboard or pad of paper, you’re going to need to improve your writing. Businesses adapt the writing formats commonly used in their industries, and they expect employees to come in with that knowledge, or at least with the ability to pick it up quickly. Fortunately, if you’re a college student – especially if you’re an online student – writing is a daily exercise and critical to your success, so you should leave school armed with skills that are in demand.

Two of the most common professional writing style guides are APA and MLA, developed by the American Psychological Association and the Modern Language Association, respectively.

What are the differences?

“The defining characteristic of APA style is its focus on sources’ relevance and dates of publication,” according to Claire Edwards, Writing Consultant for Ashford University’s Writing Center. “APA guidelines tend to favor a focus on how current information is; whereas, MLA focuses on the author.”

Here is a comparison of the standard in-text citation for each format:

APA: (Author name, year of publication)

MLA: (Author name, page number)

“APA generally calls for title and reference pages to be included as parts of all longer documents,” Edwards explained. “APA also places value on font consistency throughout a document.

“MLA doesn’t include the year of publication in the in-text citation because it doesn’t place nearly as much value on how recent a piece of information is.”

Edwards noted another difference when comparing the presence, or lack thereof, of an author’s first names in citations.

“While MLA includes the author’s entire name on the reference page, APA requires only the first initial in place of the complete first name,” she said.

Is one style better than the other?

The answer to that question depends on your profession. Ashford University students use APA style because of the University’s strong emphasis on the social sciences; APA is commonly used in the field of psychology, but also in business and health care fields.

MLA, on the other hand, is largely used in subjects such as literature and academics. These subjects, “Do not depend on constant developments in the field, so [MLA] focuses on the established relevance of authors and their ideas, no matter how much time has passed since they wrote,” according to Edwards.

Even if you’re convinced you won’t need to adapt either writing style in your profession, Edwards said having the ability to “maneuver and apply the rules” of a style guide can make you valuable in your post-college career.

“Students who complete a degree at Ashford are expected to have certain competencies, and an understanding of a style guide and how to adapt one’s writing to various requirements is one of those competencies.”

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Written by Jason R. Latham, Content Manager for Bridgepoint Education.

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