Note: This post relates to content in the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook. For up-to-date guidance, see the ninth edition of the MLA Handbook.
In a previous Ask the MLA post, we explained how to incorporate titles ending in question marks or exclamation points into works-cited-list entries. But how do you incorporate such titles into your prose? How do you handle titles ending in other punctuation marks? And what should you do about other matters of punctuation related to titles?
Titles Ending in Question Marks or Exclamation Points in Your Prose
At the MLA, we never insert a period after a title ending in a question mark or exclamation point, but we insert a comma if doing so makes a sentence easier to read—for example, when such a title is one item in a series or when the title is contained in a nonrestrictive clause:
“I just saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Oklahoma!, and Design for Living,” Roland said.
The center hopes its 1992 theme, Explore New Worlds—Read!, will draw attention to geography.
But when possible, we prefer to reword:
The center hopes to draw attention to geography with its 1992 theme, Explore New Worlds—Read!
Titles That Need to Be Shortened
When we need to shorten a really long title in a works-cited-list entry, we add an ellipsis after the first part of the title up to at least the first noun. If a work has an alternative title, we might include it. If a period is needed, we insert the period before the ellipsis and set the punctuation roman:
Bulwer, John. Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend. . . . Humphrey Mosely, 1648.
If a comma is needed, as it would be when the long title is the title of a container, we insert it after the ellipsis. We set the ellipsis and the comma roman:
Smith, Ann. Introduction. Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend . . . , Humphrey Mosely, 1648, pp. x-xxi.
In prose, we omit the ellipsis:
Philocophus; or, The Deafe and Dumbe Mans Friend was written by John Bulwer.
Titles Ending in an Ellipsis or Dash
If the ellipsis is part of the title, we add the period or comma after the ellipsis. The ellipsis is set in italics if the title is italicized, but the additional punctuation is set roman:
One of the most popular comic films of the 1980s was Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally . . . .
One of the most popular comic films of the 1980s was When Harry Met Sally . . . , directed by Rob Reiner.
Reiner, Rob, director. When Harry Met Sally . . . . MGM, 1989.
We follow the same principle if a title ends in a dash:
A well-known poem about death is Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.”
A well-known poem about death is “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—,” by Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson, Emily. “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin, Harvard UP, 1999.
Titles and Subtitles
Section 1.2.1 of the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook says, “Use a colon and a space to separate a title from a subtitle, unless the title ends in a question mark or an exclamation point. Include other punctuation only if it is part of the title or subtitle.”
The handbook provides the following examples:
Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images from Film and Literature
Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Language
But sometimes titles are not straightforward. In such cases, we follow some additional rules.
For example, when a title is followed by two subtitles, we use two colons:
Finis Coronat Opus: A Curious Reciprocity: Shelley’s “When the Lamp Is Shattered”
When a period separates a title and a subtitle on the title page, we change the period to a colon. When a question mark, exclamation point, or dash separates a title and a subtitle on the title page, we leave the original mark:
On the title page: The East End. The Story of a Neighborhood
In your prose: The East End: The Story of a Neighborhood
Both on the title page and in your prose: What Do I Know? An Account of an Investigation
But if a title contains a title ending in a question mark or exclamation point, we add a colon:
Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom!: Two American Masterpieces
Here the exclamation point is part of the title Absalom, Absalom!, so a colon is needed to separate the title Moby-Dick and Absalom, Absalom! from the subtitle.
For an alternative or double title in English beginning with or, we follow the first example given in section 8.165 of The Chicago Manual of Style and punctuate as follows:
England’s Monitor; or, The History of the Separation (452)
But no semicolon is needed for a title in English that ends with a question mark or exclamation point:
“Getting Calliope through Graduate School? Can Chomsky Help? or, The Role of Linguistics in Graduate Education in Foreign Languages”
For double titles of foreign language publications, we follow the source.
Dates in Titles
Unless a date is part of a title’s syntax, we follow section 8.163 of Chicago and set it off with a comma:
Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800–1850 (451)
Serial Comma in Titles
Contrary to section 8.163 of Chicago, for English-language titles of books published in the United States, we add the serial comma before the conjunction preceding the final item in a series if the comma is missing. Otherwise, we follow the source. The following book was published by Verso in London, so the serial comma is not added:
Buelens, Geert. Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe. Verso, 2015.
The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., U of Chicago P, 2016.
MLA Handbook. 8th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2016.