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English Composition 2

Using Quotations, Paraphrases, and Summaries

The examples used on this page refer to an interpretation of a literary text (Sophocles' Antigone) but  the same principles apply to any sources you might use in an essay.

The following passage is from pages 14 to 15 of Elements of Tragedy, by Dorothea Krook (Yale UP, 1969).

Citing and Documenting Sources

When using another person’s ideas, information, or exact words in your own paper, you must properly cite and document your source in accordance with a standard system of documentation. Failure to document a source constitutes plagiarism. In this course, you should use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style of documentation for your research paper, not the APA style.

To cite a source, whether the material is paraphrased, summarized, or quoted, you must cite in parentheses the last name of the author and the page number(s) of the source where the material originally appears. If you mention the author’s name in your sentence, you should not repeat it in parentheses, but you still must cite the page number(s). For online sources, though, cite the page or paragraph number(s) only if you see the number(s) on the web page as it appears on your computer screen. Do not cite the page or paragraph number(s) for online sources if the numbers appear only on printouts of the web pages but not on the screen.

If an author for your source is not given, use the title of the source in place of the author's name.

This parenthetical citation should be placed just before the final punctuation in your sentence where the material appears (examples follow).


When quoting material from a sources, make sure to copy that material exactly as it appears in the original. You may, however, use an ellipsis ( . . . ) to delete material within the quotation that you feel is unnecessary and that, if deleted, does not change the meaning of the original passage. You may also use [brackets] to clarify the meaning of the passage, not to offer an interpretation of the quotation but to clarify the meaning. For example, you could use brackets to clarify the antecedents of pronouns in the quotation if the antecedents are unclear. Both ellipses and brackets should be used sparingly, and you must be careful not to alter the meaning of the original when you do use them.

Quotations of four typed lines or less should be placed in quotation marks within your text. Quotations longer than four typed lines should be offset and indented an additional 10 spaces, or two tabs, from the left margin (right margins remain the same). Indented quotations, like the rest of your paper, should be double spaced, with no extra spacing before or after the offset and indented quotations. Avoid using long quotes.


Note: When you quote from sources, be careful not to take the quotations out of context. That is, be careful not to change the meaning of the original by using a quotation without giving consideration to its context (what is said before and after the quotation in the original source). For example, the following quotation is taken out of context:

In what way is this quote taken out of context? In the original, Krook suggests that the greatest tragedies affirm "something more than the dignity of man and the values of human life" (emphasis added). By leaving out "something more than," the writer has changed Krook’s original meaning.


To paraphrase, you use your own words to convey ideas or information you have found in your sources. In general, paraphrases use approximately the same number of words as the original. When paraphrasing, make sure that your paraphrase really is in your own words. Changing two or three words in a sentence and then putting that sentence into your own paper is not a paraphrase. You should use your own words and your own sentence structure when you paragraph, not the sentence structure of the original source. Also, be careful to preserve the meaning of the original. If you copy phrases from the original in your paraphrase, make sure to put those words in quotation marks. If the words in your paraphrase are your own, though, you should not use quotation marks.


Note: The most common error students make when paraphrasing a source is copying too much of the original without putting it into their own words. Most likely, you will have to use a few of the words from the original, but the sentence structure and the majority of words should be your own. The following is not a good example of a paraphrase:

Notice how the writer uses several phrases exactly as they appear in the original (and changing "dignity of man" to "man’s dignity" is more a case of "word shuffling" than of using original language). Notice, as well, how the structure of the writer’s sentence is even similar to that of the original.


To summarize, you condense information or ideas from a source and put the information or ideas into your own own words. A summary differs from a paraphrase in that a summary may condense a paragraph or even a page or two from a source into just a few sentences. Summaries are particularly useful when you feel that a writer makes a significant point that you want to use in your paper, but the writer develops his or her ideas over several paragraphs or pages. Such passages, obviously, are too long to quote or to paraphrase.


The preceding summary tries to capture the essence of Krook’s two paragraphs. There is, of course, some material that must be left out, but the writer has tried to condense the most important ideas in the passage and to present them as accurately as possible, putting the ideas into the writer's own words while avoiding the use of phrases from Krook's passage.

Things to Notice

Notice that the documentation (author’s name and page number[s]) remains the same for quotations, paraphrases and summaries. When you mention the author in your sentence, use the full name only the first time you refer to him or her. All other references to the same author should mention only his or her last name. Use only the last name of the author when putting the name in parentheses, even if it is the first time you refer to that author.

Note: Some writers tend to overuse quotations from sources instead of using paraphrases or summaries along with the quotations. Direct quotes are the easiest to use, but they are best reserved for one purpose: when you not only like what an author has to say but also think that it is said particularly well, with just the right words and just the right phrasing. Because every writer has his or her own unique writing style, filling your paper with quotations often keeps readers "jumping" from one writing style to another, and this can sometimes make for confusion and can diminish the overall "style" of the writing in the paper. When you paraphrase or summarize, though, you are bringing in the ideas of other writers while still retaining your own unique writing style. Also, paraphrases and summaries usually reflect better on the intellect and understanding of the writer than quotations do. Putting someone else’s ideas into your own words reveals to readers that you understand the ideas well enough to express them in your own way; it shows that you have consulted the experts and have assimilated the knowledge they have to offer.

Determining What to Document

Most likely, you will find that your sources touch upon many of the ideas you discuss in your own paper; however, this does not mean that you have to document a source every time this occurs. The general rule is that information or ideas that could be considered "common knowledge" do not need to be documented. Common knowledge is information that is commonly known or ideas that are so well established that they appear in several different sources. For example, that Antigone was first performed around 440 B.C. is a well-established fact and therefore does not need to be documented (even if you were unaware of this fact before finding it in your sources). Likewise, the idea that Antigone involves some type of conflict between human and divine laws can be found in many different sources and therefore does not need to be documented. (Notice that the examples from Krook go beyond simply stating that this conflict exists.)

You must document your source, however, if it presents a fact that is probably not well known or presents a unique or insightful comment about the play that you have not seen repeated in several of your sources. For example, Dorothea Krook’s idea that great tragedy affirms a set of moral laws that transcend human existence but also participate in it shows this scholar’s insight into the purpose of tragedy. While you may be able to find a few similar statements in other sources, Krook’s passage shows her own insights and must be documented.

If in doubt as to whether or not you should cite and document a source, you should cite and document it. If your citation and documentation is unnecessary, I may note this fact as I evaluate the paper. However, if you fail to cite and document a source when the citation and documentation are needed, the paper will contain plagiarism, and papers with plagiarism are supposed to receive a failing grade.

Note: You always must document your source if it is quoted, no matter how short the quotation is.

Using Sources Properly

At the "heart" of a paper using sources should be your ideas, your insights into the subject, with an original thesis and original topic sentences. You should use material from sources to help you support and develop your thesis, but don’t allow material from the sources to take over your paper. You should support your interpretation or argument by "appealing to authority," that is, by using the comments and insights of experts or authorities. Appealing to authority demonstrates to readers that experts have also recognized some of the same ideas you are discussing (the experts "agree with you"). This helps add strength and validity to your interpretation or argument.

When using sources, make sure you do so to support some claim you are making in your paper. Your sources offer evidence you can use to back up your interpretation or argument.

How much of your paper should be composed of quotations, paraphrases or summaries from secondary sources? To some extent, this depends on the individual writer and on the paperís thesis. In general, though, material from secondary sources should make up no more than twenty percent of your paper.

Copyright Randy Rambo, 2016.