How To Use Quotes In Essays

How To Use Quotes In Essays

Using quotes in essays is one of the most important skills any undergraduate can learn. In addition to showing the tutor that you've actually done the reading, quoting helps reinforce your argument by drawing on academically approved sources.

Some students find it difficult to quote their sources. Some find it hard to judge how much they should quote, while others struggle with the presentation of a quote. And what about quoting a quote? When it comes to quoting, the rabbit hole can get pretty deep!

To help you out, we'll break down each issue one by one, so you can go into your next essay fully confident in your quoting prowess.

Why is quoting important?

Quoting is important because it demonstrates your wider knowledge of your field and shows tutors that you aren't just making up your arguments. The work of other writers in your field of study can give you the information and ideas you need to present a strong, effective argument.

Why is it important to identify my sources?

Quotes can come from anywhere. When it comes to academic papers, your reader needs to be assured that a quote has come from a reputable or relevant source.

Identifying your sources demonstrates the research you've undertaken and reassures the reader that you're drawing on experience that is more academically authoritative than yours. Like it or not, if you haven't written a book on a subject, you won't be taken as seriously.

Identifying your sources also serves a more practical purpose to the reader. If you're referring to a number of sources, identifying who said what helps with the essay's readability. Read your essay out loud. If the quote makes no sense when you read it, it might be worth introducing your quote to help your reader.

How much should you quote in an essay?

As a general rule, quotes should take up 20% of an essay. This figure can vary depending on what you're writing and why.

Ultimately, the focus of an essay is your understanding of the topic. Too many quotes can be detrimental to demonstrating your argument. Your ideas can get lost in the noise, or your idea looks weak because it looks like you're stealing someone else's ideas.

To help keep your quotations under control, only quote a source if it meets one of the following conditions:

  1. The quote is particularly elegant, powerful or memorable
  2. You need to make your argument credible by using the support of an authority
  3. The passage is worthy of further analysis
  4. You wish to support someone else’s argument with extra detail

Condition 3 is especially useful in essays for literature courses, where comparative and critical analysis are so important.

Scientific essays rely less on quotation and more on longer summaries. Essays that rely on controlled studies and emphasise quantifiable results should paraphrase the studies for context and have them clearly cited.

With a 20% ballpark figure to work with, let's explore how best to work quotations into your essay…

How do I introduce a quotation?

There are 3 ways to introduce a quotation into an essay.

1. Introduction, argument, quote

In its basic form, a quote should follow a thesis in order to support it, like this:

"The complexity and scale of the Hindenburg Line would ultimately result in its collapse. As the war dragged on into its fourth year, maintenance became unsustainable. As Martin Gilbert points out, in The First World War: "While the line was intact [around St. Quintain Canal], many of the fortifications were outdated and deteriorating."

2. Argument, quote, conclusion

However, if you want to make the most of your quotes, you can weave them into your argument to help strengthen your analysis:

In The First World War, Martin Gilbert points out that by 1918, even the centre of the Hindenburg Line was on the verge of structural collapse: "While the line [around St. Quintain Canal] was intact, many of the fortifications were outdated and deteriorating." It would only be a matter of time before the costs of repair outweighed the benefits.

3. Quote is the argument

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” .

female student with tablet

How do I introduce a long quotation?

If your quotation is longer than four lines, don't place it in quotation marks. 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.

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.

Quoting Poetry

When you're quoting two or more lines of poetry, display the verse as it appears on the page, like so:

In the opening couplet of Sonnet 18, Shakespeare uses a rhetorical question as both a narrative framing device and a means of demonstrating the futility of using words to describe feelings:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate: (1-2)

When incorporating verse into the body of your essay, separate line breaks with slashes (/):

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).

The reason for this is because structure is an essential part of poetry and should be respected whether you're discussing the structure or not.

Spice up your intros with new verbs

Expand your range of options by building up a vocabulary of verbs that will help lead you into your quotes. This is very important to the reader if you have a lot of quotes, because saying "says" a lot becomes very tedious.

Verbs for quotes

argues

writes

points out

concludes

comments

notes

maintains

suggests

insists

observes

counters

asserts

states

claims

demonstrates

illustrates

explains

reveals

Vary the way you introduce quotations to avoid sounding monotonous. But never sacrifice precision of phrasing for the sake of variety. Each verb has its own nuance, so make sure that the nuance matches your specific aims in introducing the quotation.

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

Sometimes you need to alter a quote to help it fit into your essay. Most of the time, this will be for readability purposes, but sometimes you'll be cutting down a particularly long quote.

If you ever need to alter your quotations, indicate how you've done it. If you remove text, replace the missing text with an ellipsis.

In The History of the Jukebox, Robbins observes that the “social divides that split the nation… led to the very name 'Jukebox'”.

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.

If you need to alter or replace text from the original, enclose the added text within square brackets. This usually occurs when you need the pronouns to agree with their antecedents.

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

vs.

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

Square brackets allow you keep your essay flowing nicely.

There are many ways to alter a quote to make it fit with your essay. If you are struggling, experiment with different ways to approach the argument and see how a quote could fit.

students

How is punctuation affected by quotation?

Just like poetry, it's important to preserve the punctuation of quoted text. If you must change the punctuation, you must use square brackets to indicate your changes.

The question of punctuation at the end of a quotation is a contentious one. There are two philosophies on this issue: one traditional, the other logical.

The logical view holds that the only punctuation marks which should be placed inside the quotation marks are those that form part of the quotation, while all others should be placed outside.

Simple, right?

The traditional view, in contrast, insists on placing most other punctuation marks inside a closing quote, regardless of whether they form part of the quotation.

Here are two sentences punctuated according to the logical view:

"The only thing we have to fear", said Franklin Roosevelt, "is fear itself."

The Prime Minister condemned what he called "simple-minded solutions".

And here they are punctuated according to the traditional view:

"The only thing we have to fear," said Franklin Roosevelt, "is fear itself."

The Prime Minister condemned what he called "simple-minded solutions."

The logical view places punctuation outside the quote marks, while the traditional view places them inside. This traditional view goes all the way back to the age of the printing press.

Back in the days when "setting type" literally meant laying out little blocks of letters, compositors found that placing commas inside quotation marks protected the small metal pieces of type from breaking off the end of the sentence. The quotation marks protected the commas and periods.

In the early 1900s, the Fowler brothers, author's of The King’s English style guide, began lobbying to make the rules more about logic and less about the mechanics of typesetting.

This seems complicated, but the only question you need to ask is whether or not adding punctuation to a quote can change it in a significant way (see "Let's eat Grandma" for more details). In English, both ways are acceptable, but as always, refer to your style guide! And always be consistent throughout your essay.

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