Using Quotations in Your Essay

Borrowed from L. Boyd, winter 1996.

Your essay is your argument

Too many quotations, too many voices, can overpower your own. Quotations should fit into your argument, not appear out of thin air. They should be grammatically consistent with the rest of your essay. If punctuation, pronouns, and verb tenses don't flow with your own words, paraphrase and cite the needed material, or make minor changes within the quotation, surrounding them with brackets [ ]. All quotations should be unobtrusive.

Quote only sentences, passages, or words that are especially succinct, memorable, or powerful. Save direct quotations for brilliant comments, controversial statements, certain statistics, and personal testimony that you believe will strengthen your argument.

If a quotation is long, or if you can say it better or more concisely, paraphrase it (restate it in your own words). Remember, you must indicate a source even when paraphrasing. Keep paraphrasing to a minimum because it is your ideas, your argument that counts to convince your readers.

Always integrate quotations into your text. NEVER DROP A QUOTATION IN YOUR ESSAY! In other words, you must use your own words to introduce a quotation. The good old standby--So-and-so said, "blah blah blah"--is the very least you can do. Even better is when you can use some select words and phrases from a quotation and integrate them into a sentence of your own (always putting those words or phrases in quotation marks, though).

Maintaining a smooth sentence style

In order to make your own writing flow as smoothly as possible, it's usually best to use only an effective part of a quotation as part of one of your own sentences. So instead of boring your reader with this:

The narrator says, "Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?" (232),

write something like this:

The narrator asks if anyone could imagine her "looking a stage white man in the eye" (232).

And this:

At one point the mother says, "I used to think [Dee] hated Maggie, too" (233),

is not as good an integration as this:

At one point the mother admits that she "used to think [Dee] hated Maggie, too" (233).


Preparing for and following up on a quotation

To integrate a quotation properly within a paragraph, a good writer usually writes one sentence to introduce the quotation, a second sentence that includes the quotation, and a third sentence to comment on the significance of the quotation. Here are some examples:

ORIGINAL: The shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain and she saw the river through the trees.

SMOOTHLY INTEGRATED QUOTATION: Hemingway uses the image of a momentary darkness to suggest the woman's growing disillusionment. After her quarrel with the man, "[t]he shadow of a cloud moved across the field of grain . . ." (21). A similar shadow gradually develops over their relationship.

ORIGINAL: That look of seeing into things, of seeing through a thing to something else, was in the eyes of the sheriff's wife now.

SMOOTHLY INTEGRATED QUOTATION: Mrs. Peters sometimes appears to be almost supernatural. For example, Glaspell describes her "look of seeing into things, of seeing through a thing to something else . . ." (333). However, this "look" really demonstrates a sense of intuition rather than any magical powers.

Leaving something out of a quotation

Notice the ELLIPSES in the above quotations. Please notice that there ARE SPACES between each dot. Ellipses indicate, of course, that some unnecessary words have been left out of a quotation. Note that when you quote just a word or a short phrase, no ellipsis is necessary. Also, do not use an ellipsis to indicate that you have left out the beginning of a sentence; only missing words from the end or somewhere in the middle of a sentence need to be indicated with an ellipsis.

Changing or adding words within a quotation

Use brackets to indicate any changes you make to quotations while fitting them into your sentences (for reasons of style, verb tense, or general understanding). Look again at the above change of the original word "she" to "[Dee]." Here's another example:

ORIGINAL: "You don't have to call me by it if you don't want to," said Wangero.

SOMEWHAT SMOOTHLY INTEGRATED QUOTATION: The new and supposedly improved Dee tells her mother that she doesn't "'have to call [Dee] by [her new name] if [she doesn't] want to'" (234).

This quotation is technically correct (notice also the correct use of single quotation marks for dialogue), but three changes within such a short quotation render it a bit awkward. In general, if you have to change more than two items in a short quotation, it's better to find another way to write it. One way is just to paraphrase it (to paraphrase is to restate someone else's words in your own words, without quotation marks):

The new and supposedly improved Dee tells her mother that she doesn't have to use her new name, Wangero, if she prefers not to.

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