How to Write the Date in MLA Format

Have you been asked to write a paper in MLA format, and are you scrambling to find out how you should format dates in MLA? Students and others who have not worked with a style manual before may find this challenging, as can those who frequently work with different style manuals such as APA and simply need to check what MLA has to say about formatting dates.

This guide is here to lend a helping hand! Watch out, though — despite the fact that writing a date seems simple at first glance, there is a surprisingly large amount of information to get through.

What Is MLA?

The Modern Language Association of America is an influential professional association that exists to uphold and increase standards in studying and learning within the fields of language and literature. Its influential style manual — widely referred to as the MLA format or MLA style — has a long history. MLA format is widely used within the humanities, and has even been adopted within high schools.

The MLA Handbook, currently in its ninth edition (and published in the year 2021) is available for sale on the MLA website. If you would like to learn to learn to format your papers in MLA and cite in MLA, the MLA Handbook is available as a paperback for only $22, with electronic versions of the handbook being even cheaper.

Do you not have a copy of the MLA Handbook yet, and are you in a hurry? No problem. We’ll show you exactly how to write the date in MLA format!

How to Write the Date in MLA Format in the Body of an Essay

Writing Full Dates in MLA

Are you planning to write an entire date in the body of your essay? The ninth edition of the MLA Handbook specifies that it is acceptable to choose either a day-month-year format, or a month-day-year format. Writers have to, however, choose one or the other and remain consistent — switching between formats is not a valid choice.

That means that both of the following examples are consistent with MLA style:

  • 3 March 2022
  • March 3, 2022

Do not use ordinals — “March 3rd” or “the 3rd of March” are not consistent with MLA format.

You will note that no commas are used in the day-month-year format in MLA style, while a comma is placed after the day when choosing a month-day-year format. We would encourage you to choose a month-day-year format for the simple reason that you may, occasionally, wish to place the date at the beginning of a sentence. Since MLA does not leave room for formats such as “On the third of March…”, you avoid the challenge involved in ensuring that your sentences never begin with dates. After all, sentences that start with “Three” and “3” are equally awkward in this context.

Referring to Decades in MLA

Are you only referring to a decade? MLA style allows you to write the decade out in letters, or to use numbers. For example:

  • The sixties (do not capitalize the decade!)
  • The 19960s

Once again, choose one of the two and stick with it. Do not use an apostrophe before the “s”, and do not drop the century by using an apostrophe in front of of it (as in “the ‘60s”), either.

Referring to Centuries in MLA Style

This one is easy — write the entire thing out, and do not capitalize anything unless it appears at the beginning of a sentence:

  • The eighteenth century
  • The twenty-first century

How to Write Date Ranges in MLA Style

You will sometimes have to refer not to a single date, decade, or century, but to an entire range. What is the correct way to do so in MLA format? That depends on the nature of the range.

A range that spans across different centuries should include both full years, separated by a hyphen and no spaces. For instance, if you wanted to refer to the entire Victorian Era, you would say “1837-1901” in MLA format.

If you referring to a date range within the same century, you should drop the first two digits in the second year. If you were talking about the Second World War, for example, you can say “1940-45” in MLA format.

Is a date range still unfolding? You may talk about the COVID-19 pandemic (2019- ) in MLA format, listing the first year, placing a hyphen, and leaving a space to indicate that your range remains in progress.

How to Write a Date in MLA Format When You Don’t Know the Date

Maybe you’re talking about fossilized remains or archaeological findings. Maybe you are referring to a book with no known publication date. Sometimes, you just have to make do. In MLA format, you can refer to the “early nineteenth century”.

How to Write the Date in Your Works Cited Page in MLA Style

We have already covered a lot of ground — but wait, you’re not done yet. MLA style heavily relies on Works Cited pages, and always requires you to include a publication date for the sources you cite, as well. Brevity is important in the Works Cited page, so you will have to use a different format.

The level of detail you should include depends on the nature of the work you are citing in MLA format, so let’s examine that first.

Only include the year of publication if you are citing:

  • An entire book
  • A book chapter
  • A movie
  • A TV show episode
  • A song or an entire album

In MLA, the publication year is placed right at the end — after the author, creator, or artist, after the title, and after the publisher or distributor.

Here is an example:

Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational : the Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York :Harper Perennial, 2010.

Include the month and the year if you are citing a journal article or, if the journal in question uses that format, include the season and the year instead.

For example:

Kinney, David A. "From" headbangers" to" hippies": delineating adolescents' active attempts to form an alternative peer culture." New directions for child and adolescent development 84 (1999): 21-35.

Include the full date — the month, day, and year — when citing sources such as:

  • Web pages and similar online materials, such as videos and podcasts
  • Newspaper articles
  • Lectures
  • Artistic performances

In this case, all months that contain five letters or more are abbreviated to conserve space, using their first three letters:

  • January becomes Jan.
  • February becomes Feb.
  • March becomes Mar.
  • April becomes Apr.
  • May is not abbreviated, since it only contains three letters. The same holds true for June and July, as they only have four letters each.
  • August is abbreviated to Aug.
  • September is abbreviated to Sep.
  • October is abbreviated to Oct.
  • November becomes Nov.
  • December becomes Dec.

Note that MLA style always uses a month-day-year format for citations located within the Works Cited page.

If you have reason to believe that any content you have accessed online is reasonably likely to be subject to change, you may include the exact time at which you accessed the source, as well. In MLA, the most common uses of this would be forum posts, and social media posts, such as comments left within the comments section of a newspaper or YouTube video.

To name an example, that would look something like this: Accessed 3 Mar. 2022.

Citing Sources with an Unknown Date

To include sources with an unknown or approximated date in your Works Cited page in MLA format, you have to take a slightly different approach.

Where a date has been estimated, but not confirmed, use a question mark to denote this — “1844?”. If there is no date at all, then use the abbreviation “n.d.” (no date) to indicate this.

Additional Tips for Writing Dates in MLA Format

Are you still with us? We warned you that this guide on writing dates in MLA format would be unusually beefy, and if you are having trouble parsing this text, wait until you get your hands on the actual MLA Handbook!

While learning to write dates in the body of your text is fairly straightforward, citing sources in MLA style might perpetually remain confusing because different types of sources are cited differently and each provide a different level of detail. You’d be forgiven for forgetting what to do on a regular basis!

Thankfully, there is a shortcut. Simply head over to Google and search “MLA citation generator” or “cite this in MLA”, and an abundance of tools will come to your rescue.

Cite This and Cite This for Me are just two examples. These tools are not foolproof, and you will have to check that the format is correct manually, but they can absolutely save you some valuable time.

Why Is Proper Formatting Important?

If you have been instructed to use MLA throughout your work as a student, it is important to do so simply because you will lose points if you slip up. Academics add credibility to their work by showing complete mastering over a style manual, meanwhile.

More broadly speaking, the MLA format ensures consistency, which in turn makes research papers easier to read, easier to fact-check, and easier to interpret. Just like MLA’s mission statement indicates, MLA style strengths learning and teaching alike.

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