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Know Your Enemy – The Modern Language Association (MLA)

March 9, 2012 by Mike in MLA

The bane of many student writers’ lives is the requirement to format papers in a particular style. We see that played out every day here at ProofreadingPal, and the multitude of writing formats often leaves us frustrated, annoyed, and ill-tempered, too. So why, why, must writers’ and proofreaders’ lives be so tormented? Who are these people who are so demonic that they drool over a keyboard exhilarated by the notion that they can conjure up yet one more tiny affectation in yet one more specialized writing format and, by doing so, continue to haunt legions of otherwise decent, honest, hard-working folk?

Perhaps it would help if we knew our enemy. Most of us would surely feel better if we knew these format formulators were neo-Nazis, mafia henchmen, or Iowa State Cyclone fans. Alas, ‘tis not so. Instead, the creators and protectors of the MLA format are not unlike you and me. They are sons and daughters, husbands and wives, athletes and nerds and singers and dancers and, perhaps even a few are acrobats and stand-up comedians. But the thing these folks all have in common is their membership in the Modern Language Association. Yes, this is our common enemy: the MLA.

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But these MLA folks—mostly scholars, professors, and grad students who study and/or teach language and literature—have to pay for the privilege. MLA members’ annual dues are based on income with dues ranging from $25 for those making less than $15,000 a year, to $280 for those pulling down $200,000 a year or more. According to the MLA’s own website, “The membership of the association is organized into divisions, each representing a major area of scholarly and professional concern, and discussion groups, which accommodate the scholarly and professional interests of constituencies within the association concerned with discrete literatures or with literary and linguistic concerns that are not encompassed by one of the divisions…” Got it?

The MLA currently claims about 30,000 members in about 100 countries. Although founded in the United States in 1883 and headquartered in New York City, the MLA’s membership and influence extend worldwide. But one thing you already knew is that this is the organization that formulates and publishes the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, a guide geared toward high school and undergraduate students that has sold more than 6,500,000 copies.

So these are the people who come up with the rules you have to follow when writing in MLA style. And, like regular folk, they do change their minds—and the rules for MLA writing—from time to time. As a result, the current MLA Handbook is the 7th edition. The handbook itself declares MLA to be a “simple” style, and then goes on for more than 300 pages explaining it and providing examples.

Next time we’ll begin examining MLA format and what it means to you as a writer. But at least now you may know your enemy. Don’t you feel better?

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