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Quotation Guidelines

(these are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules!)


Some people tend to over-quote, using quotations in every sentence. Other people tend to under-quote, never using any at all. A middle ground is ideal -- using quotations judiciously and with specific intent will enhance your argument, keep your readers’ attention, help your prose flow gracefully, and generally make your paper look well-constructed. (Of course, what you do with the quotations will determine whether that well-constructed appearance is true or not.)


One guideline, however, is not merely a suggestion, but advice to write by:

A quotation cannot stand on its own -- you must explain its significance for your argument to your readers. Just because the quotation’s importance to your argument seems obvious to you does not mean that your reader will see the same significance that you do. You need to link the quotation, usually through some form of interpretation, back to your overall argument.


When do I use a quotation rather than a paraphrase?

  • When you want to focus on the language the author uses

  • When the author’s turn-of-phrase portrays the flavor and nuance you are describing in your argument

  • When the original is shorter than your paraphrase could be

  • When you want to discuss several details, or a sequence of events, in an extended analysis AND the passage is relatively short

  • If you are dealing with work which is likely to be unfamiliar to your audience, it is appropriate to quote the relevant passage at a moderate length

  • If the passage is of vital significance to your argument


How do I integrate quotations gracefully into my own prose?

This is sometimes a difficult aspect of style for people to learn. The key is to use the author’s words as if they were your own. The quotation marks will make it clear where your prose leaves off and your source’s prose begins, but you should be able to read the sentence aloud and not be able to tell where the quotation begins and ends.


You can also use “signal phrases” to introduce your quotation. (Example: However, Chaucer suggests otherwise in line 353: “quotation...”) Signal phrases are particularly useful for integrating secondary (contemporary criticism) sources into your prose, but they are often excess verbiage when dealing with primary (original literary text) sources. Combining signal phrases with seamless integration in your essays will provide the most pleasing effect. Variety in quotation, as in everything, is the spice of life.



Here are a variety of different models and approaches:


When seamlessly integrating quotations into your own text, make sure your sentence is grammatically correct. Example:


Once the Pope has asked Willibald to join Boniface, Willibald’s desire to seek his abbot’s permission “according to the prescriptions of the Rule” may suggest that the Pope’s command actually countervenes Benedict’s Rule (174).


If you need to change a portion of a word (to change verb tenses, for example) or insert a word to achieve grammatical coherency (see example #2 below), use square brackets to indicate the additions within the quotation.


If you need to omit unnecessary verbiage, use ellipses within square brackets [. . .] to indicate the omission. Ellipses are not necessary at the beginning and end of quotations.


If the quotation is a separate sentence in its own right, make sure your introductory sentence is a complete sentence, not a fragment. This is often true of “signal phrases.” Example:


The author’s careful description of Willibald’s efforts to hide the balsam is detailed enough that another could replicate his actions: he “filled a calabash with it [balsam]; then he took a hollow reed which had a bottom to it and filled it with petroleum and put it inside the calabash” (170).


If your quotation is shorter than 3 typed lines (or 3 lines of poetry), use the quotation style given above. If the quotation is more than 3 lines long, you must offset it in this manner:


The author’s careful description of Willibald’s efforts to hide the balsam is detailed enough that another could replicate his actions: he

filled a calabash with it [balsam]; then he took a hollow reed which had a bottom to it and filled it with petroleum and put it inside the calabash. Afterwards he cut the reed equal in length to the calabash so that the surfaces of both were even and then closed the mouth of the calabash. (170)

And then the analysis that I perform continues here.


The editing capacities of this website aren't supple enough to let me quote that one correctly. The quoted passage should be indented by 1/2”. These elements, however, are correct: there are no quotation marks around the passage, the period comes before the parenthetical page citation, and (just as in the short-form quotation) there is no extra punctuation needed between your own prose and your quotation. Also note that, when my own words continue (in the same paragraph) after the quotation, they are aligned at the far left margin, not indented (as for a new paragraph). If your word processing program automatically inserts an indent after every hard return, figure out how to turn that function off. See the “Poetry Quotation Samples” handout for more details, and for examples of how to quote poetry.