MLA style for explanatory and reference notes

MLA style for explanatory and reference notes

  1. Explanatory notes

Explanatory notes are used for incidental comments or for information that does not relate directly to an essay’s thesis or idea and that would be disruptive if placed in the body of the paper. Explanatory notes can be used to clarify, illustrate, or further explain an idea; to provide a definition, or to identify individuals and events. Avoid overusing explanatory notes because they can distract from the main text of the essay.

Use a superscript Arabic number immediately after the term or passage to be expanded upon. That number corresponds to a list of notes placed at the end of the paper (endnotes). Head this separate page “Notes” and place it immediately before the Works Cited list. (The corresponding list of notes could be placed at the bottom of the typewritten page and called footnotes.)

To format the notes, indent five spaces and place the superscript number following by one space and the explanatory notes. Double-space the notes and arrange them in numerical order.


The Volstead Act provided for enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment by empowering federal agents to prosecute bootleggers and other violators.


The law, passed in 1919, was named for a sponsor, Andrew Joseph Volstead, a congressman from Minnesota.

  1. Reference notes

Reference notes direct to the additional source and often to another section of an essay. References that support an essay’s ideas usually include the words see, and those that contradict an essay’s ideas include the word compare. A source named in a reference note should be included in the Works Cited list. These notes are formatted like explanatory notes.


Mark Twain was convinced that the novels of Sir Walter Scott had infected the South with false romantic notions.


For a full account of Twain’s opinion of Scott, see Sydney J. Krause. Mark Twain as Critic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1967) 145-49

The format for reference notes in MLA style differs from the format for items in a Works Cited list. There is no brief introductory phrase introducing a citation in a Works Cited list, and the publication information is organized slightly differently.

A reference note that refers to a book should follow this formatting convention.

  • Indent the first line of the reference note five space. Any subsequent lines of the note do not indent.
  • Include the author’s name exactly as it appears on the book’s title page.
  • Separate the author from the title with a comma.
  • Place the publication information after the title and in parentheses. Being with the city of publication followed by a colon and one space before listing the publisher and the year of publication separated by a comma.
  • Place the page number(s) outside the closing parenthesis and do not put a comma or period between them

 To format a reference note for an article in a scholarly journal, follow these guidelines.

  • Indent the first line of the reference note five spaces. Any subsequent lines of the note do not indent.
  • Include the author’s name exactly as it appears in the article, followed by a comma and a space.
  • Place the full title of the article within quotation marks. Place a comma before the closing quotation mark.
  • List the full name of the publication (without including initial articles).
  • Provide the volume and date of publication and page number(s) as necessary.


A contrasting view is provided by Dana Jonelson, “Mark twain’s Debt to Sir Walter Scott, “American Quarterly 42 (1989): 54.

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