Danielle Nettleton
By: Danielle Nettleton
February 22, 2019

MLA Format: Top Ten Do/Don’t Tips

As a scorer for Essentials in Writing, I grade compositions according to the guidelines of MLA: the Modern Language Association, also known as the group that discerns what is and is not permissible in written compositions.

Along with the other scorers, I grade according to this standard not only because it provides consistency but also because it is the standard by which the average college professor grades written assignments (depending, of course, on the department and the class).

If your student uses Essentials in Writing and/or our scoring service, they will be prepared for any writing assignment that comes their way because of this standard, should they decide to attend college.

MLA format, however, is an ever-changing thing and also contains many rules that the average student may not know. This is perfectly normal—much of the frustration regarding writing formats like MLA and APA is that the rules do not always seem like common sense!

As a result, when I am grading students’ submissions, I often notice several types of mistakes that are common across compositions. These errors may not necessarily impede the reader’s understanding of the composition, but they do not adhere to what MLA prescribes—and the more your student learns about MLA now, the better prepared they will be for any writing assignments down the road.

With that in mind, below is a list of the top ten do/don’t rules when writing in MLA format:

  1. Don’t forget the info tag.

    The “info tag” is how I refer to the information in the top left corner of the assignment’s first page: name, EIW level, assignment title, and date, the last of which is written like this: 25 May 2019. The exact information to be included differs according to institution, teacher, and class, so be sure to pay attention in order to learn what is required.


  1. Do indent paragraphs.

    Unless an assignment’s guidelines specifically state otherwise, make sure that all paragraphs are indent by half an inch (or one press of the “tab” key). Doing so makes the composition easier to read.


  1. Don’t forget double-spacing.

    The reason for this rule is similar to the previous rule—doing so simply makes the composition easier to read. It also leaves room for a teacher or scorer to leave feedback, especially if the composition has been submitted as a paper copy.


  1. Do spell out numbers that are two words or fewer.

    This rule trips up many because our first inclination when dealing with numbers is to hit the numerals. However, words pronounced with two words or fewer—such as “seventy-seven” or “nine”—should be spelled out, including percentages but not decimals. For example, numbers such as 1,337 or 3.14 would not be spelled out—again, to achieve readability. A handy subset of this rule is to avoid symbols (%, $, &) wherever possible.


  1. Don’t use contractions.

    Contractions are fine in everyday speech, but written compositions tend to (or should) use more formal language, so forgo that “isn’t” for “is not” and that “doesn’t” for “does not.”


  1. Do write in the third person.

    As mentioned in the prior rule, compositions written according to MLA format are formal compositions, and third-person perspective is the most formal perspective. Avoid references to “I” and “you”—doing so may take some creativity, but the composition will be much more polished in the end.


  1. Don’t forget to check your commas.

    Listing every comma guideline here would take up far too much room, but the two errors I see the most are missing commas after introductory material (a word, phrase, or clause) and before a conjunction that separates two independent clauses. Check out the examples below:

After reading the blog post, I had learned more about MLA format.

I wrote the sentence, and I used commas correctly.


  1. Do hyphenate adjectives with multiple words.

    Ages are a particularly common offender in this area—“twelve-year-old brother,” “five-year-old sister.” If an adjectival phrase with at least two words precedes a noun, hyphenate it. Again, the goal here is readability for your reader. If the adjectival phrase follows the noun, however, hyphens are not necessary. For example, “up to date” would not be hyphenated in the following sentence: “The new app is up to date.”


  1. Don’t use vague pronouns.

    The most common offender here is that all-purpose “it” which so often stands in for seemingly-indescribable ideas or thoughts. Consider the following sentence and then its rewritten form:

It is difficult to describe such an idea.

Describing such an idea is difficult.

Since infinitive verbs (“to [verb]”) often follow the subject “it,” transforming the infinitive verb into the subject of the sentence is an easy way to not only avoid that vague pronoun but also make the sentence more interesting. (This rule also applies to “there,” though that word is technically an adverb.)

  1. Don’t hesitate to check your work.

    Purdue OWL, or the Purdue Online Writing Lab, is a trustworthy website provided by Purdue University that offers up-to-date guidelines for and information about MLA format. If you aren’t sure about a certain comma or wonder about that apostrophe, then simply look it up! You can also use MLA guidebooks, but be sure that the version you’re using is current.

This list is not a comprehensive guide to MLA format but simply some of the mistakes I often see when grading students’ compositions. I urge you and your student to often check Purdue OWL or additional resources in order to keep up with changes in MLA or just to brush up on the general guidelines.

Additionally, writing within certain guidelines takes time and practice, so don’t be surprised if your student feels frustrated by the many rules of MLA format that can often feel unnecessary. Writing well according to any format is, after all, an arduous process within an ever-changing language.


Danielle Nettleton

Curriculum Editor

Essentials in Writing