The Basics of Quotations
When you’re writing a paper, it is important to avoid vague generalizations, especially when it comes to paraphrasing other authors.
Identify problematic generalizations
- Vague terms like “critics say” or “is widely regarded as” that attempt to take the place of particular examples weaken evidence by not citing specific sources.
- Quoting and paraphrasing the ideas and knowledge others have set forth is a way to show your reader how you arrived at your conclusions.
- You must always cite ideas, as well as any other information other than commonly known and accepted facts.
- Quotations are most appropriate when the author is particularly well-known, when you want to add an air of authority to the information, and when the exact words are particularly eloquent.
- Paraphrasing gives you more flexibility with sentence structure and allows the reader to hear your unique voice and reasoning in the paper.
- quote: To repeat the exact words of another with the acknowledgement of the source.
- quotation: A fragment of a human expression that is being referred to by somebody else.
- paraphrase: To restate another’s thoughts or ideas in different words.
When writing a paper, it is important to avoid vague generalizations, especially when it comes to characterizing the thoughts of others, whether they hold similar or contrary positions to your own. Catch-all phrases such as “critics say” or “is widely regarded as” are vague and unconvincing because they have no basis for verification. These types of phrases might seem useful to condense research where you’ve discovered ubiquitous agreement on a particular position, but in those cases, it would be better to cite a series of authors or quote a particular instance rather than make a sweeping generalization. A properly placed quotation can articulate your position and provide substantiation at the same time. Most often a quotation is taken from the literature, but also sentences from a speech, scenes from a movie, elements of a painting, etc. may be quoted if they further the argument you’re trying to make.
Did it drive you crazy as a kid when an adult in your life told you you had to do something “Because I said so!,” and offered no other justification? Think of that when you’re about to write, “They say that…,” or “Most people agree…” You’re not giving the reader any reason to believe you. They’re going to furrow their brows just as you did as a child, and your trust with your reader will be compromised.
While you’re researching your topic, when a brilliantly worded sentence catches your eye, save it. When you find a statement summarizing evidence you plan to use or evidence you think you might use, save it. Look for statements that concur with your argument, but also for assertions that contradict your claims, as you’ll use these for refutation purposes.
You can use programs like Zotero or EndNote, or simply drag the quotation into a document. Just make sure you’re also saving the complete source material (for both in-text citations and the reference page), so you won’t have to go searching for it later. If you can organize your quotations by topic, so much the better. They’ll be much easier to find when you need them.
When to Quote, Paraphrase, and Cite
It’s important first to recognize when citations are required. In the U.S., ideas are always attributed to the thinker or writer, as are any facts discovered through research. If you find information at a particular source, you’ll usually need to cite that source, though commonly known and accepted facts (such as the undisputed dates of a particular war, for example, or the pound equivalent of 32 ounces) need not be cited.
There are times when a quotation will give you maximum impact and times when paraphrasing is more effective. Look at the following alternatives in a paper about transforming cultural mores.
- “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” (Gandhi, 1931).
- In fact, as Gandhi said in 1931, offering forgiveness is not a display of weakness, but indeed, its opposite.
In this case, while the second sentence isn’t a bad summary of the idea, both the syntax of the direct quote and the reputation of the speaker make the quotation far more powerful than the paraphrased reference. Quotations are useful when the author is particularly well-known, when you want to add an air of authority to the information, and when the exact words are particularly eloquent or historically significant. This one meets all the criteria.
Here’s one from an essay about the use of alternative medicine:
- One bright spot in the ongoing campaign against human trafficking has been the United Nations, founded after the World War II.
In this case, there’s no need to quote or paraphrase. The first part of the sentence is your opinion, and the second part is general and undisputed knowledge. Widely accepted facts like when the UN was founded needn’t be paraphrased or cited. If you were to then go on to tell us what exactly the UN has done to combat human trafficking, you’d need to cite your sources.
Here’s an example of paraphrasing:
- There are actually 69,436,660 registered Catholics in the United States (22% of the U.S. population) according to the American bishops’ count in their Official Catholic Directory 2013.
You wouldn’t need to quote the directory, because there’s no more power in the quote than in your summary of it. But since it is a precise number that isn’t common knowledge, you do need to cite it. Notice that the word “actually” is coloring the phrase. It’s the author’s way of disputing a possible perception that the religion is in decline. This is how using your own words gives the option of contextualizing. Paraphrasing gives you more flexibility with sentence structure and allows the reader to hear your unique voice and reasoning in the paper.
The catch with paraphrasing is that you need to be sure that all the words you’re using are actually your own, other than conventional terms and designations (like “registered Catholics”). If there are particular phrases within a work you’re paraphrasing that you’d like to quote directly, you’ll want to put quotes around those phrases, like this:
In Democracy Matters, for example, West advocates revisiting the foundation of the U.S. Constitution to recognize and counter “free market fundamentalism” which he believes, among other policies, has undercut the document’s intention (West, 2004).
Here, the phrase “free market fundamentalism” is clearly a phrase unique to West’s work and must be recognized as such by using the quotation marks.
To Quote or to Paraphrase?
Consider whether you should quote, paraphrase, or simply state the following examples:
- On life: “90 percent of it is half mental.”
- About 68 percent [of people over age 25 in the U.S.] do not have a bachelor’s degree.
- Fewer homes were lost to fires in San Diego County last year than this year.
- Bitter herb combinations have been used for centuries to stimulate the digestive system.
- “[The disappearance of honeybees] is the biggest general threat to our food supply.”
The first sentence is a good example of something you should quote. Knowing who said it (Yogi Berra) is important, because it’s an original thought, and because knowing the speaker is one reason why it’s funny. You wouldn’t want to paraphrase it because the exact words are important to the humor and the wording is unique to the speaker.
Number 2 could be paraphrased or quoted, but paraphrasing might be the better choice because you could leave out the brackets and put the statistic in context of whatever you’re writing about—for example, “In fact, despite the assumptions of many middle class parents, only about 32 percent of people living in the United States have completed a bachelor’s degree,” (2015, Politifact.com).
Number 3 is a bit of a gray area as far as citation is concerned. You might assume that it’s a common fact that could be found anywhere, and so you wouldn’t need to cite it. That said, it may depend on the context of the quote, and whether it’s a disputed idea. If your reader questions it, you’re going to lose credibility without a citation that he or she can follow up on. If it is disputed, you’ll want to paraphrase and cite the source. It’s not likely that quoting directly would provide more credibility, so it is therefore unnecessary.
Number 4 would generally not need to be cited, though you’ll likely be following it up with more specific information that will. You might consider that a quote from an herbalist or doctor offering the same information might give the skeptical reader a feeling of being on more solid ground.
Number 5 is one you’ll want to quote directly, as the person who said it (Kevin Hackett, of the USDA) is a key person in the debate about honeybee colony collapse and what to do about it. You’ll note that there’s no question about whether or not to cite the source, because it’s an original thought, not a common fact.
You see, then, that while the issue of citation is relatively straightforward—when in doubt, cite—the question of quotation versus paraphrase is subtler. It’s a decision based both on the needs of the argument and artistic sensibility.
The revision process will be helpful in this regard. You’ll notice if your paper plods from one quote to another, overwhelming the reader with other people’s words. You’ll also notice whether it seems less than authoritative and needs the backing of direct quotes. The citations, throughout, are a foundational element, showing the reader how your argument developed and why you think as you do about the subject. Let those whose shoulders you’re standing on support you, but don’t let them take over. It’s your paper, after all.
Introducing and Formatting Quotations
To quote an author, copy the author’s exact language and use quotation marks to show you are reproducing language from another source.
Apply formatting rules for using quotations
- Use quotation marks around a statement to give the original writer or speaker credit.
- When you introduce a quote, pay close attention to the proper use of quotation marks and related punctuation.
- To paraphrase is to restate another author ‘s point in your own words. When you paraphrase, you don’t need to use quotation marks, but you still need to give credit to the author and provide a citation. Otherwise, you are committing plagiarism.
- paraphrase: A restatement of a text in different words, often to clarify meaning.
- quotation marks: Symbols used to denote a quotation in writing, written at the beginning and end of the quotation.
- quotation: A fragment of a human expression that is being referred to by somebody else.
Quoting versus Paraphrasing
Paraphrasing is using a particular idea that you took from another author and putting it in your own words. Quoting is using the exact words of another author. Both methods help you introduce another author’s work as a means of strategically improving the persuasiveness of your paper. Generally, you will choose a quotation rather than paraphrasing when you want to add an air of authority to the information you’re presenting, when the words you’re using are offered by a source important to your particular topic, or when the exact words have historical relevance or are particularly eloquent.
To quote an author, you should copy the author’s exact language and frame the words with quotation marks, which signals that you are reproducing exact language from another source. Quotation marks give full credit to the original author, so you’ll need to make it clear whose words they are.
Introducing a Quotation
An introductory tag is one way to effectively introduce quotations. This is also known as a “signal phrase.” An introductory tag is a phrase that introduces a quote by providing the authority’s name and a strong verb. For example:
Desmond Tutu counters, “Racism, xenophobia and unfair discrimination have spawned slavery, when human beings have bought and sold and owned and branded fellow human beings as if they were so many beasts of burden.”
This is only one way to introduce a quotation, however, and if it’s the only method you use, your paper could begin to sound stilted. Consider incorporating the quote into a sentence in other ways, as well. You may, for example, explain the quote before offering it:
Thousands of years ago, Gautama Buddha was offering teachings on how not to hold on to hostilities, saying: “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” This is by no means a new problem.
Formatting and Punctuating Quotations
Quotations call for special rules regarding punctuation:
If a quotation is introduced formally, use a colon.
- The author explicitly states: “Socrates was only a figment of Plato’s imagination.”
If a quotation is set off with “he said” or “she said” (or the implication of it), use a comma preceding the quotation.
Use an ellipsis (…) to indicate that there is more to the quote than you offer here.
- He brought listeners to tears when he ended his last broadcast with his familiar, “And that’s the way it is…”
If your quotation has a quotation within it, the inner quotation needs a pair of single quotation marks and the outer needs a pair of double quotation marks.
- This is the pivotal part of the story: “The doorman cried out, ‘You forgot your coat!’ as he ran after the cab.”
If you choose to break up a single-sentence quotation with your own words, use commas to offset the quotation from your explanation.
- “In the middle of the novel,” the critic claims, “the main character’s reflections are restricted by his sense of impending change.”
Periods and commas should be placed inside the quotation marks. Colons, semicolons, and dashes should be placed outside the quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points should be placed inside the quotation marks, unless the punctuation applies to the whole sentence (not just the quote).
- When the team’s best player said, “We’re in for a bad season,” it became clear that the team’s morale was flagging.
- Was America really listening when President Kennedy said, “Ask what you can do for your country”?
When to Use Brackets Within Quotations
When using quotations, you need to be very careful to copy the words as they appear in the source text. However, you may find that a quotation does not grammatically align with the way you want to use it, or that the relevance of the quotation may not be readily apparent to a reader. When that happens, you might want to change it slightly in order to make it fit your essay. In such cases, square brackets should be used around words not contained in the original quote.
Brackets can be used to do the following:
- “[Fiestas] are the lifeblood of this region. We need to honor our traditions even, and especially, after tragedy.” Sr. Gomez told reporters. (The original quotation used the pronoun “They,” in answer to a reporter’s question about a fiesta.)
Enclose a change in verb tense to better flow with your sentence:
- Silven maintained the assertion throughout his life: “It seems unlikely that this pairing [was] due to a human need for companionship.”
Enclose an explanatory phrase if a word isn’t clear:
- Renowned family therapist Virginia Satir once mused, “I have often thought had there been somebody like me around, something might have been able to be done [about her own divorce].”
If you are using a long quotation (four or more typed lines), instead of quotation marks, you should indent the entire quotation five spaces. If the quote is two or more paragraphs, indent the first line of each paragraphs an additional five spaces (maintaining the indent of the rest of the quote). When using this format, you do not need to use quotation marks.
Appropriately paraphrasing the ideas of researchers and authors can add strength to your argument.
Distinguish between paraphrasing and summarizing
- When using your own words to discuss someone else’s work, you are paraphrasing; when you use the words of someone else, you are quoting.
- Both methods help you to introduce another author ‘s work as a means of strategically improving the persuasiveness of your paper, by providing an example or evidence relevant to a claim that you have made.
- Arguments are more powerful when source material is woven through the paper with paraphrasing, saving quotations for moments of impact, authority, and eloquence.
- If a quotation needs to be substantially changed, it may be better to simply paraphrase the author’s ideas in your own words.
- Fully understanding the context of the words you’re paraphrasing, and citing the source completely, gives an authentic representation of the source and strengthens your argument.
- context: The surroundings, circumstances, environment, or background that determine, specify, or clarify the meaning of a piece of writing.
- quotation: A fragment of a human expression that is being referred to by somebody else.
- citation: A paraphrase of a passage from a book, or from another person, for the purposes of a scholarly paper.
As you’re writing your paper, you’ll want to bring in evidence to support your claims. You’ll generally do this through paraphrasing and quoting what you’ve discovered in the research phase of your writing process. Here, we’ll focus on paraphrasing, noting its appropriate use and differentiating it from other forms of citations.
Paraphrasing Is Different from Summarizing
When you summarize an article or book, you’re providing an overview of the work, highlighting its major findings or themes. A summary is like looking at a distant source through a telescope: the general shape and ideas are clear, but the details are fuzzy. You may need to offer a summary if your topic is a book or a study potentially unknown to your reader, so that he or she has a basis for understanding the argument to come, but when offering evidence, you’ll usually be choosing to paraphrase rather than summarize.
You want to lead your reader, in your paper, along the path that brought you to your intellectual conclusion: the thesis statement you set out in the introduction. That means you’ll be presenting the reader with the research that convinced you of this statement, including statistics that impressed you, others’ arguments for or against a particular position, facts you encountered that shifted your perspective, and even stories or examples that touched you emotionally. These all came from somewhere, and you’ll want to share their origins with your readers. There are a couple reasons for this:
- Readers like to be able to check things out for themselves. You may tell them that 39.4% of adults in the U.S. are obese, but they may find that hard to believe. When they check out the source (the Centers for Disease Control), however, they’ll likely be convinced and more willing to accept the premise you’re building on.
- Citing sources makes you credible with both your audience and with those you’re paraphrasing. It shows you’re not pretending that the information you’ve gathered is solely from your own mind, but you’re building on what others have said, observed, and experienced. That’s what research is all about.
Paraphrasing will be the most common way to share with your readers what you’ve found. When you paraphrase, you’re maintaining the same level of detail as the original source (unlike summarizing), but you’re synthesizing what you’ve read to create a seamless argument.
Why Not Just Use Quotations?
Imagine how choppy a paper would be, jumping from one person ‘s words to another, to another, and another with only transition sentences in between. It would be very difficult to follow, and your own voice would be drowned out by all the “experts.” Expository writing isn’t about giving us other people’s opinions—it’s about giving us your own. Those other voices are there to support you and your argument.
What you’ll be doing, then, is writing what you think and weaving in evidence to support your thinking. For example, look at the following paragraph:
“An ethical approach, while both admirable and arguably an improvement in today’s educational system, does not go far enough as a method of truly connecting human beings to one another and to their true nature. In her book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Nel Noddings offers a more feminine approach to education—one based on receptivity—that prioritizes caring over justice.”
You see here that the writer has a firm grasp of both the topic and the approach Nel Noddings describes. Even though he is citing evidence and even a specific source, the voice is still his, weaving Dr. Noddings’s thoughts into his own. This kind of weaving is the primary reason to use paraphrasing.
Another reason is to save direct quotations for impact. If you quote only when the source will offer an air of authority to your argument, when the exact words are either historically important or particularly eloquent, or when the source is of primary importance to your topic, the quotes will carry much more weight. In all other instances, paraphrasing will move the narrative along much more smoothly, tying it to your own style along the way.
Even when you want to use a quote, it sometimes needs to be changed so substantially to fit your narrative that it may be better to simply cite the author’s ideas in your own words.
Authenticity in Paraphrasing
As with any instance of appealing to another author’s work within your own, whether you use paraphrasing or quotation, the primary criterion for use should always be its relevance to your thesis and claims. However, you’ll need to be sure that you’re not twisting or manipulating another author’s words to match your own purposes.
Make notes during the research phase on the context of each piece of evidence you find, and double-check that context for relevance to your own claim. This will ensure that you have not misused another author’s work for your own purposes.
If you find an article that quotes a book, an interview, or another article, do your best to track down the original source so you can be sure of its context. For example, people sometimes quote Robert Frost as saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” If you read the poem, however, you’ll find that the sentence is ironic: it’s a sad quip offered by the neighbor of the narrator in the poem, not a maxim for how to live well.
Forms of Citation
Another part of authenticity, of course, is citing your sources correctly and completely. The form of citation within the text will vary based on the style you’re asked to use, but you will need, at a minimum, the title of the work and the name of the collection (if any) it is in, the publication date, the author’s or authors’ name(s), the editor’s name, if any, and the page number(s) of the material you’re paraphrasing. All of this helps your reader find the source material.