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Using Quotations

Fundamental Principles and Rules of Style

Fundamental Principles:

I. Quotations present and acknowledge the intellectual work of someone else.

 A. Quotations must be accurate. COPY the exact words actually used. Don't guess on the basis of memory. The result can be misquoting.

 B. Always give credit where credit is due. Every use of quoted material must be acknowledged and a specific page reference must be given.

 Even when you paraphrase someone else's ideas, you must provide a specific citation. Failing to acknowledge that a phrase or idea is someone else's amounts to telling your reader that it is your own original phrase or idea. First of all, this is essentially a lie, and, secondly, it amounts to theft.

 II. Quotations are never more than examples or illustrations brought in to back up a point that you have to make.

 Your job is not to write reports or summaries, in which you would get your main ideas from some other text and summarize them in yours. Summary will occasionally have a place in your work, but it: will be a very small, secondary part of your essay.

 Your job is to write essays. You have to have your own thesis, and the main ideas for the parts of your paper have to be yours. You have to make your point, and then use quoted material to back it up or to help you explain what you mean.

 * From these fundamental principles come the following handy rules of thumb: 

 1. All quoted material must be exactly (perfectly) as it appears in the original text. There is no room for guessing at phrasing or at spelling.

 2. Always acknowledge the intellectual work of others, even when you are paraphrasing it. Be very careful not to plagiarize.

 3. Paragraphs should never begin or end with quotations. Quoted material is only brought in to back up a point you have to make. The thesis of your paper and the topic sentences of the paragraphs have to be your own.

 Paragraphs should start by making your point clearly, and then show us the specific evidence from the text that supports the point. If you are bringing a quotation in to back up a point, we must first know what the point is you are trying to make, before we can see how the quote supports it. Ending a paragraph with a quote leaves undone the job of showing us what in the quote counts as support for your main point. Never assume this connection is obvious.

Rules of Style:  



When a reader begins to read a quotation, he notices the quotation mark. This tells him that someone besides you (the author of the essay) is speaking. Without some introduction, the reader does not know who is speaking, who is saying the words he is reading, or when the words were said, to whom, or why. He cannot make sense of the quotation or understand why he is reading it or how it is related to your main point until he has answered these questions. Your reader will have to stop and start several times, and will have to try to place the quote before he can go back again and try to figure out why you have put it in your essay. He may never get your point, and you wil1 lose him for certain.

 On the other hand, if you tell the reader who is talking and in what context, which is all you have to do to introduce the quote properly, then he knows exactly what he is reading and can give his full attention to following your train of thought.

 An example:

 A. The wrong way:

 The President and Secretary of State have been arguing for some time about the treaty. "We signed it; now we have to abide by it." "Conditions have changed so radically that it is now contrary to our interests and the interests of our allies to comply; this is a form of suicide." Seldom has their been such sharp disagreement.

 B. A little better:

 The President and Secretary of State have been arguing for some time about the treaty. When asked at a press conference last week whether or not we should continue to comply with the terms of the agreement, the President angrily replied, "We signed it; now we have to abide by it." The Secretary of State, on the other hand, told farmers in Iowa only two days ago that "Conditions have changed so radically that it is now contrary to our interests and the interests of our allies to comply; this is a form of suicide. " Seldom has their been such sharp disagreement within this administration.

 Note the difference in readability, and all we have done is introduce the quotations by telling who says it and in what context.  


 1. The quoted material must be copied extremely accurately, exactly as it appears in the original, with no omissions or changes unless indicated by ellipsis - use if part of the quote is left out (...) or square brackets ‑ material you add that is not part of the original quote ([ ]).

 2. If your quote is longer than 4 typewritten lines, you must indent the quotation 10 spaces on both the left and right margins. (If this occurs do not use quotation marks around the quoted material and the parenthetical note that follows the quoted material is placed after the period that ends the quote. Example (Assume this quote has been indented 10 spaces): . . . shades and coloration. (44)

 2. The sentence in which the quotation appears, which will also usually contain the introduction, must still work out as a simple, well-formed grammatical sentence. Punctuation, verb tenses, agreement between pronouns, all still have to function properly within the sentence.

 3. After the quotation, provide a parenthetical note indicating the source from which the quote comes and the specific page number on which it is found.  

A full parenthetical note includes the author's name, the title, and the page number, and follows this form:

 . . . (Poe, "The Fall of the House of Usher" 99).  


 If I had more than one author in my bibliography with the last name "Poe," I would have to provide the author's full name. In this case, however, I have only one Poe in the bibliography, so I can get away with just the last name. Similarly, if I am referencing only one story by Poe, and have only one entry for Poe in my bibliography, I can leave off the title also. The note would look like this:

 ..." (Poe 99).

 Keeping the notes short like this makes the text a little more readable. If I have only one entry in my bibliography, and that is for Poe's story, or if I include the author's name in my introduction to the quote, I can shorten this still further and write:

 " (99).

 As you can see, a lot depends upon your bibliography. The note form does not work without a bibliography to provide us with the rest of the information we need to be able to look up the material for ourselves. There are a number of reasons why a reader might want to find the specific piece of information you have quoted, and the note and bibliography together make this possible even for a person who has to order the book to get it. Documentation is part of using, presenting, and acknowledging the work of others responsibly.


 After you have introduced the quote and presented it accurately and provided the page reference, you must comment on the quote. You must show us what you see in it as support for your main point, for the topic sentence of your paragraph.

 Never assume that the relevance of a quotation is obvious, or that your reader finds exactly the same meaning in the words that you do. Ask yourself, "What specifically in this passage supports my topic sentence or my thesis," or "What exactly did I want the reader to pick out in that?" The answers to these questions will provide the comment that is needed. More often than not, doing this will also help you to tighten and strengthen your argument and to keep it on track. You will discover new, useful, and relevant ideas in writing your comments. Your paper will become deeper and better organized.  

Copyright Dr. Von E. Underwood, Professor of English, Cameron University.  All rights reserved.  Permission granted to reproduce for nonprofit educational purposes.         

Last Modified:  08/10/2008
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