What Is The Main Difference Between The APA And MLA Formatting Styles?

When presenting academic papers, your university will usually require you to write your work according to a particular style. Two of the most frequently used of these are the APA, the American Psychological Association style, and the MLA, the Modern Language Association style. What follows is an explanation of the major differences between these two styles.

Subject matter

The biggest difference between the two styles is their subject matter. The APA style is the social sciences style: It finds its most frequent use in the social sciences, including psychology, certainly, but also in sociology and social work. The MLA style is more common when studying the humanities and liberal arts, such as languages, art, drama, or philosophy.

Purpose for writing

Following from the previous point, the two styles have very different reasons for writing, because the social sciences and humanities have very different reasons for writing. In the social sciences, writing is usually to report research; while in the humanities, the purpose is normally to analyse, argue, interpret, and discuss other works.

Writing style

The social sciences and humanities also follow very different writing styles, thus the two formatting styles follow very different writing styles. In MLA writing there tends to be a lot of jargon for the particular subject matter. The APA style tends to be more neutral, even if it makes heavy use of very technical terms.

The thesis is the thing

The purposes discussed above follow through the most basic claims made between the two styles. In the humanities, it’s all about arguing for a position, backed by reasoning. In the social sciences, it’s all about trying to prove or disprove a question, backed by evidence.


In the MLA style, evidence for arguments comes from facts, testimonies, definitions, and opinions. In the APA style, evidence for hypotheses comes from statistical analyses of experiments.

Other differences

In addition to the major differences discussed above, there are a number of other, smaller, differences between the APA and MLA formatting styles. These include differences in tone, tense, page numbering, titles, cover pages, the author’s name, headings, in-text citations, source pages, quotations, and even the date. Despite not being major, these additional differences are essential to remember when writing academic papers according to these styles.

With any luck, you now have a better understanding of the main differences between the APA and MLA formatting styles, and can use them appropriately.