An epigraph is a small portion of text borrowed from one writer, appearing as a mini-introduction before the start of another writer's work. Epigraphs have a handful of jobs. One is to offer context for or a preview to the material to come and another is to provide necessary background information that will allow a reader to better understand the work she is about to read. The Modern Language Association handbook offers suggestive guidelines, though no hard rules for placing an epigraph on the page.
Because the official MLA Handbook offers no specific instructions regarding the format of an epigraph, writers are left to devise their own rules, compatible with MLA style. Many writers find it helpful to study MLA standards regarding the formatting of quotations and headings in order to get a feel for what should be appropriate formatting for epigraphs.
By the Numbers
Considering MLA rules already in place regarding similar types of content, it is advised that epigraphs be once double-spaced beneath the title of the written work and indented two inches from the paper's edge on each side. If an epigraph precedes an entire book, such as a novel, it is not uncommon to find the text on its own page, usually immediately after the book's title page. What's more, book chapters can each have their own individual epigraphs appearing, more conventionally, under the chapter number or title.
While it is commonplace for essays and research papers written in MLA style to be double-spaced, epigraphs are usually single-spaced so as not to take up valuable room, as well as to individuate the text and its function from the rest of the copy on the page. Some writers take the singling out of the epigraph further by italicizing the text or making it one or two font sizes smaller than the rest of the words on the page.
It is vital that the author of the epigraph's content follow the epigraph, even if that author is unknown or "Anonymous." The name should be typed immediately below the epigraph, indented to the right, usually preceded with an em-dash. Furthermore, the source of the epigraph is always included on a Works Cited page, if one is included.
Bending the Rules
Occasionally, writers have produced their own epigraphs, citing fictional characters from their own works, individuals who might or might not have written or said the words in the original book, story or poem in which they were featured. For example, the author of the verses that precede F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" is none other than Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, a character from another Fitzgerald novel, "This Side of Paradise."
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- MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers: Modern Language Association
- Upper School English: Harvard-Westlake School: Guide to Using MLA Format
- The Guardian: Books: Epigraphs: opening possibilities
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