Quotation In Writing An Essay

How much should I quote?

The focus of your essay should be on your understanding of the topic. If you include too much quotation in your essay, you will crowd out your own ideas. Consider quoting a passage from one of your sources if any of the following conditions holds:

  1. The language of the passage is particularly elegant or powerful or memorable.
  2. You wish to confirm the credibility of your argument by enlisting the support of an authority on your topic.
  3. The passage is worthy of further analysis.
  4. You wish to argue with someone else’s position in considerable detail.

Condition 3 is especially useful in essays for literature courses.

If an argument or a factual account from one of your sources is particularly relevant to your paper but does not deserve to be quoted verbatim, consider

  • paraphrasing the passage if you wish to convey the points in the passage at roughly the same level of detail as in the original
  • summarizing the relevant passage if you wish to sketch only the most essential points in the passage

Note that most scientific writing relies on summary rather than quotation. The same is true of writing in those social sciences—such as experimental psychology—that rely on controlled studies and emphasize quantifiable results. (Almost all of the examples in this handout follow the MLA system of citation, which is widely used in the humanities and in those social sciences with a less quantitative approach.)

Visit our handout on paraphrase and summary.

Why is it important to identify my sources?

Quotations come from somewhere, and your reader will want to know where. Don’t just parachute quotations into your essay without providing at least some indication of who your source is. Letting your reader know exactly which authorities you rely on is an advantage: it shows that you have done your research and that you are well acquainted with the literature on your topic.

In the following passage, the parenthetical reference to the author does not adequately identify the source:

The ancient Greeks never saw a need to justify wars that were waged outside the walls of the city state. “Hence we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war, together with the first notion that there are just and unjust wars” (Arendt 12). Yet the Roman conception of a just war differs sharply from more modern conceptions.

When you are making decisions about how to integrate quotations into your essay, you might imagine that you are reading the essay out loud to an audience. You would not read the parenthetical note. Without some sort of introduction, your audience would not even know that the statement about Roman antiquity was a quotation, let alone where the quotation came from.

How do I introduce a short quotation?

The following offers just one way of introducing the above quotation:

The ancient Greeks never saw a need to justify wars that were waged outside the walls of the city state. As Hannah Arendt points out in On Revolution, “we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war, together with the first notion that there are just and unjust wars” (12). Yet the Roman conception of a just war differs sharply from more modern conceptions.

Since the quotation is relatively short, the brief introduction works.

You could, however, strengthen your analysis by demonstrating the significance of the passage within your own argument. Introducing your quotation with a full sentence would help you assert greater control over the material:

The ancient Greeks never saw a need to justify wars that were waged outside the walls of the city state. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt points to the role the Romans played in laying the foundation for later thinking about the ethics of waging war: “we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war, together with the first notion that there are just and unjust wars” (12). Yet the Roman conception of a just war differs sharply from more modern conceptions.

In these two examples, observe the forms of punctuation used to introduce the quotations. When you introduce a quotation with a full sentence, you should always place a colon at the end of the introductory sentence. When you introduce a quotation with an incomplete sentence, you usually place a comma after the introductory phrase. However, it has become grammatically acceptable to use a colon rather than a comma:

Arendt writes: “we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war . . .”

If you are blending the quotation into your own sentence using the conjuction that, do not use any punctuation at all:

Arendt writes that “we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war . . .”

If you are not sure whether to punctuate your introduction to a quotation, mentally remove the quotation marks, and ask yourself whether any punctuation is still required.

Finally, note that you can deviate from the common pattern of introduction followed by quotation. Weaving the phrases of others into your own prose offers a stylistically compelling way of maintaining control over your source material. Moreover, the technique of weaving can help you to produce a tighter argument. The following condenses twelve lines from Arendt’s essay to fewer than two:

What Arendt refers to as the “well-known realities of power politics” began to lose their moral legitimacy when the First World War unleashed “the horribly destructive” forces of warfare “under conditions of modern technology” (13).

What verbs and phrases can I use to introduce my quotations?

Familiarize yourself with the various verbs commonly used to introduce quotations. Here is a partial list:

argueswritespoints outconcludescommentsnotes
maintainssuggestsinsistsobservescountersasserts
statesclaimsdemonstratessaysexplainsreveals

Each verb has its own nuance. Make sure that the nuance matches your specific aims in introducing the quotation.

There are other ways to begin quotations. Here are three common phrasings:

In the words of X, . . .

According to X, . . .

In X‘s view, . . .

Vary the way you introduce quotations to avoid sounding monotonous. But never sacrifice precision of phrasing for the sake of variety.

Visit the U of T Writing Website’s page on verbs for referring to sources.

How do I introduce a long quotation?

If your quotation is lengthy, you should almost always introduce it with a full sentence that helps capture how it fits into your argument. If your quotation is longer than four lines, do not place it in quotation marks. Instead, set it off as a block quotation:

Although Dickens never shied away from the political controversies of his time, he never, in Orwell’s view, identified himself with any political program:

The truth is that Dickens’ criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence his lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens’ attitude is at bottom not even destructive. . . . For in reality his target is not so much society as human nature. (416)

The full-sentence introduction to a block quotation helps demonstrate your grasp of the source material, and it adds analytical depth to your essay. But the introduction alone is not enough. Long quotations almost invariably need to be followed by extended analysis. Never allow the quotation to do your work for you. Usually you will want to keep the quotation and your analysis together in the same paragraph. Hence it is a good idea to avoid ending a paragraph with a quotation. But if your analysis is lengthy, you may want to break it into several paragraphs, beginning afresh after the quotation.

Once in a while you can reverse the pattern of quotation followed by analysis. A felicitously worded or an authoritative quotation can, on occasion, nicely clinch an argument.

There is some flexibility in the rule that block quotations are for passages of four lines or more: a shorter passage can be represented as a block quotation if it is important enough to stand on its own. For example, when you are quoting two or more lines of poetry, you will probably want to display the verse as it appears on the page:

In the opening heroic couplet of The Rape of the Lock, Pope establishes the unheroic nature of the poem’s subject matter:

What dire offense from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things. (1-2)

If you choose to integrate verse into your own sentence, then use a slash surrounded by spaces to indicate line breaks:

In Eliot’s The Waste Land, the symbols of a mythic past lie buried in “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief” (22-23).

How do I let my reader know I’ve altered my sources?

If you need to alter your quotations in any way, be sure to indicate just how you have done so. If you remove text, then replace the missing text with an ellipsis—three periods surrounded by spaces:

In The Mirror and the Lamp, Abrams comments that the “diversity of aesthetic theories . . . makes the task of the historian a very difficult one” (5).

If the omitted text occurs between sentences, then put a space after the period at the end of sentence, and follow that by an ellipsis. In all, there will be four periods. (See Orwell on Dickens, above.)

Many people overuse ellipses at the beginning and end of quotations. Use an ellipsis in either place only when your reader might otherwise mistake an incomplete sentence for a complete one:

Abraham Lincoln begins “The Gettysburg Address” with a reminder of the act upon which the United States was founded: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation . . .” (1).

Do not use an ellipsis if you are merely borrowing a phrase from the original:

In “The Gettysburg Address” Abraham Lincoln reminds his listeners of the principles that had inspired the creation of “a new nation” (1).

If you need to alter or replace text from the original, enclose the added text within square brackets. You may, for example, need to alter text to ensure that pronouns agree with their antecedents. Do not write,

Gertrude asks her son Hamlet to “cast your nighted colour off” (1.2.68).

Square brackets allow you to absorb Gertrude’s words into your own statement:

Gertrude asks her son Hamlet to “cast [his] nighted colour off” (1.2.68).

Alternatively, you can include Gertrude’s original phrasing in its entirety as long as the introduction to the quotation is not fully integrated with the quotation. The introduction can be an independent clause:

Gertrude implores her son Hamlet to stop mourning the death of his father: “cast your nighted colour off” (I.ii.68).

Or it can be an incomplete sentence:

Gertrude implores her son Hamlet, “cast your nighted colour off” (1.2.68).

How is punctuation affected by quotation?

You must preserve the punctuation of a quoted passage, or else you must enclose in square brackets any punctuation marks that are your own.

There is, however, one important exception to this rule. You are free to alter the punctuation just before a closing quotation mark. You may need to do so to ensure that your sentences are fully grammatical. Do not worry about how the original sentence needs to be punctuated before that quotation mark; think about how your sentence needs to be punctuated. Note, for example, that if you are using the MLA system of referencing, a sentence always ends after the parenthetical reference. Do not also include a period before closing the quotation mark, even if there is a period there in the original. For example, do not write,

According to Schama, Louis XVI remained calm during his trial: “The Terror had no power to frighten an old man of seventy-two.” (822).

The period before the closing quotation mark must go:

According to Schama, Louis XVI remained calm during his trial: “The Terror had no power to frighten an old man of seventy-two” (822).

However, if you are using footnotes, the period remains inside the quotation mark, while the footnote number goes outside:

According to Schama, Louis XVI remained calm during his trial: “The Terror had no power to frighten an old man of seventy-two.”1

In Canada and the United States, commas and periods never go outside a quotation mark. They are always absorbed as part of the quotation, whether they belong to you or to the author you are quoting:

“I am a man / more sinned against than sinning,” Lear pronounces in Act 3, Scene 2 (59-60).

However, stronger forms of punctuation such as question marks and exclamation marks go inside the quotation if they belong to the author, and outside if they do not:

Bewildered, Lear asks the fool, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (1.4.227).

Why is Lear so rash as to let his “two daughters’ dowers digest the third” (1.1.127)?

Finally, use single quotation marks for all quotations within quotations:

When Elizabeth reveals that her younger sister has eloped, Darcy drops his customary reserve: “‘I am grieved, indeed,’ cried Darcy, ‘grieved—shocked'” (Austen 295).

Using literary quotations

Use the guidelines below to learn how to use literary quotations.


 

For further information, check out Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Acknowledging Sources, or you may wish to see when the Writing Center is next offering its workshop entitled Intro to Literary Analysis.

Incorporating Quotations

  • As you choose quotations for a literary analysis, remember the purpose of quoting.

  • Your paper develops an argument about what the author of the text is doing--how the text "works."

  • You use quotations to support this argument; that is, you select, present, and discuss material from the text specifically to "prove" your point--to make your case--in much the same way a lawyer brings evidence before a jury.

  • Quoting for any other purpose is counterproductive.

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Punctuating and Indenting Quotations

For the most part, you must reproduce the spelling, capitalization, and internal punctuation of the original exactly.

The following alterations are acceptable:

Changing the closing punctuation

You may alter the closing punctuation of a quotation in order to incorporate it into a sentence of your own:

"Books are not life," Lawrence emphasized.

Commas and periods go inside the closing quotation marks; the other punctuation marks go outside.

Lawrence insisted that books "are not life"; however, he wrote exultantly about the power of the novel.

Why does Lawrence need to point out that "Books are not life"?

Using the slash when quoting poetry

When quoting lines of poetry up to three lines long (which are not indented, see Indenting quotations), separate one line of poetry from another with a slash mark (see examples in Incorporating Quotations into Sentences).

Using Ellipsis Points for Omitted Material

If for the sake of brevity you wish to omit material from a quoted passage, use ellipsis points (three spaced periods) to indicate the omission.

(See this sample paragraph. The writer quoted only those portions of the original sentences that related to the point of the analysis.)

Using Square Brackets when Altering Material

When quoting, you may alter grammatical forms such as the tense of a verb or the person of a pronoun so that the quotation conforms grammatically to your own prose; indicate these alterations by placing square brackets around the changed form.

In the following quotation "her" replaces the "your" of the original so that the quote fits the point of view of the paper (third person):

When he hears Cordelia's answer, Lear seems surprised, but not dumbfounded. He advises her to "mend [her] speech a little." He had expected her to praise him the most; but compared to her sisters', her remarks seem almost insulting (1.1.95).

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Indenting Quotations

Prose or verse quotations less than four lines long are not indented. For quotations of this length, use the patterns described above.

Indent "longer" quotations in a block about ten spaces in from the left margin; when a quotation is indented, quotation marks are not used.

The MLA Handbook (1995) recommends that indented quotations be double-spaced, but many instructors prefer them single-spaced. The meaning of "longer" varies slightly from one style system to another, but a general rule is to indent quotations that are more than two (or three) lines of verse or three (or four) lines of prose.

Indent dialogue between characters in a play. Place the speaker's name before the speech quoted:

CAESAR: Et tu, Brute! Then, fall, Caesar!

CINNA: Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead! (3.1.77-78)

For more information see Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Acknowledging Sources - How to Quote a Source.

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Emphasizing Your Ideas

What to include in literary analysis

Take a look at this sample paragraph. It includes 3 basic kinds of materials:

  1. statements expressing the student's own ideas about the relationship Woolf is creating;

  2. data or evidence from the text in summarized, paraphrased, and quoted form; and

  3. discussion of how the data support the writer's interpretation.

The quotations are used in accordance with the writer's purpose, i.e. to show how the development of Mrs. Ramsey's feelings indicates something about her personality.

Should I quote?

Quoting is only one of several ways to present textual material as evidence.

You can also refer to textual data, summarize, and paraphrase. You will often want merely to refer or point to passages (as in the third sentence in the sample paragraph) that contribute to your argument.

In other cases you will want to paraphrase, i.e. "translate" the original into your own words, again instead of quoting. Summarize or paraphrase when it is not so much the language of the text that justifies your position, but the substance or content.

Quote selectively

Similarly, after you have decided that you do want to use material in quoted form, quote only the portions of the text specifically relevant to your point.

Think of the text in terms of units--words, phrases, sentences, and groups of sentences (paragraphs, stanzas)--and use only the units you need.

If it is particular words or phrases that "prove" your point, you do not need to quote the sentences they appear in; rather, incorporate the words and phrases into sentences expressing your own ideas.

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Maintaining Clarity and Readability

Introduce your quotations

Introduce a quotation either by indicating what it is intended to show or by naming its source, or both.

For non-narrative poetry, it's customary to attribute quotations to "the speaker"; for a story with a narrator, to "the narrator."

For plays, novels, and other works with characters, identify characters as you quote them.

Do not use two quotations in a row, without intervening material of your own.

For further information see Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Acknowledging Sources - How to Quote a Source.

Pay attention to verb tense

Tense is a tricky issue. It's customary in literary analysis to use the present tense; it is at the present time that you (and your reader) are looking at the text.

But events in a narrative or drama take place in a time sequence. You will often need to use a past tense to refer to events that took place before the moment you are presently discussing:

When he hears Cordelia's answer, Lear seems surprised, but not dumbfounded. He advises her to "mend [her] speech a little." He had expected her to praise him the most; but compared to her sisters', her remarks seem almost insulting (1.1.95).

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Documenting Quotations

Follow your course instructor's guidelines for documenting sources. If your instructor hasn't told you which system to use to document sources, ask.

Keep in mind that when you are writing a paper about the same text and quoting from the same edition that everyone else in the class is, instructors will often allow you to use informal documentation. In this case just include the page number in parentheses after the quotation or reference to the text. To be sure, though, you should ask your course instructor.

The documentation style used in this pages is that presented in the 1995 MLA Handbook, but other style systems are commonly used. The Writing Center has information about the rules of documentation in general and about a number of the most common systems, such as APA, APSA, CBE, Chicago/Turabian, MLA, and Numbered References.

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