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English Composition 1

Using Quotations Properly

This page explains miscellaneous information about using quotations properly. For an explanation of integrating quotations into your own sentences and the correct punctuation to use as you introduce quotations, see Integrating Quotations into Sentences.

Be Accurate with Quotations, and Indicate Changes

You should never change the words in a quotation without indicating the changes. The quotation marks you use around words indicate to readers that everything within those quotations marks appears in your writing exactly the same as it appears in the source you are quoting. To give you an idea of how important it is to copy quotations correctly, what do you think you would do if you are quoting a writer's words and you notice that there is an error in the writing, a typographical error, for instance? You copy the error. In your own reading, you may have seen [sic] within quotations; this expression is a Latin word meaning "thus found." If you find an error in words you are quoting, you copy the error followed by [sic], which is telling readers, "I didn't make the error. The error is in the original." The need to use [sic] seldom comes up in ENG 1001, but it does suggest how important it is to copy someone else's words correctly. Before you submit a final draft of a paper, you should double check all quotations to make sure they are accurate. Above, I state that you should never make changes to quotations "without indicating the changes." Actually, there is one exception and two ways in which you can make changes as long as you indicate the changes properly, explained below.

Removing Final Punctuation from a Quotation

Without indicating the change, you can and should remove the final punctuation from a quotation if the final punctuation does not make sense within your sentence and if the punctuation conveys no meaning in the original. In general, commas and periods do not convey any meaning, so they usually can be removed from a quotation if they appear after the last word you quote. Exclamation points and questions marks, though, do convey meaning, so they should not be removed from quotations. Note the examples below:

Indicating Additions to Quotations with Brackets

You can use brackets within quotations to indicate material you have added to a quotation, but you should use brackets only when the meaning of the original might be unclear, most often because of a pronoun in the quotation with an unclear antecedent. Note the example below:

In this example, the antecedent of "he" may be unclear to readers, so it's fine to use brackets to clarify the antecedent, as indicated below:

You should use brackets sparingly since the overuse of brackets may cause readers to wonder why you are making so many changes to the words you quote. If the brackets are not necessary to clarify the meaning, don't use them. For example, in the example above, I most likely would not need to use brackets to clarify the antecedent of "he" if I used the word "weasel" just a sentence or two before the sentence in which I use the quotation. In this situation, readers should have no problem understanding what "he" refers to in the quoted words.

Another situation in which changes indicated with brackets might be necessary is when a pronoun or pronouns within a quotation you use could cause confusion for your readers. Can you recognize the possible confusion for readers if you used the quotation below?

The problem above is with the pronouns "me" and "we." Typically, when a writer uses the pronoun "me," the writer is referring to himself or herself, and the use of "we" typically refers to the writer along with one of more other individuals. To eliminate the possibility of confusion, then, the writer might make the following changes to the quotation, indicated with brackets:

The example above is correct, but, again, writers should use brackets sparingly, and I would say that two changes with brackets to one short quotation is moving toward heavy use of brackets.

Is there any way that the writer could clarify the antecedents of the pronouns in the quotation above without making changes to the quotation? Could the writer clarify the pronouns in the quotations by making changes to his or her own words in the sentence to eliminate the need to make changes to the quotation? Yes, as the example below demonstrates.

The example above might be a bit wordy, and further revision to the sentence might help the writer find a way to accomplish the same end with fewer words, but the revision at least eliminates the writer's need to make two changes to a short quotation.

Whenever possible, writers should make changes to their own sentences to accommodate quotations, and they should avoid making too many bracketed changes to quotations.

Occasionally, writers will also use brackets to indicate changes in the verb tense of a word in the original or changes to a verb in terms of its agreement with its subject. It's fine to do this occasionally if you do not change the meaning of the original, and there is the possibility of changing the meaning of the original if you start making these kinds of changes. However, notice how the verb in the first example below does not agree with the subject used in the writer's own sentence, so the word in the quotation should be changed.

She "think" is an error, a lack of subject/verb agreement. To eliminate this error, the writer could use brackets to change the tense of "think."

Make sure you remember what brackets are and what brackets are not: [ ] are brackets; ( ) are parentheses, not brackets; { } are, well, I'm not sure what they are called!

Indicating Deletions from Quotations with Ellipses

An ellipsis is three periods in a row, and an ellipsis is used to indicate that material has been deleted from a quotation. When you delete material from a quotation and add an ellipsis, you should put the ellipsis points in brackets, like this [...], to indicate that the ellipsis is something that you have added and does not appear in the original passage.

It's all right to delete material from a quotation, as long as the deleted material is not vital to the meaning of the quotation and as long as the quoted words convey the same meaning as they do in the source. Note the example below:

The ellipsis is used well in this example. The deleted material is "either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull." Deleting the specifics of how the weasel kills its prey, as in the example above, does not change the meaning of the quoted words.

When you use an ellipsis, realize that, in terms of the grammar of the sentence, the ellipsis points are "invisible." In other words, the ellipsis is read in the same way that someone would read a single space between words. Therefore, you must make sure that the words before and after the ellipsis points make sense together, both logically and grammatically.

When should you use an ellipsis at the end or the beginning of a quotation? The simple answer is "seldom," but there are specific situations in which you should use an ellipsis in this way.

You should use an ellipsis if the words you quote, as they appear in your essay, constitute a complete sentence, but, in the original, the words you quote are only part of a longer sentence.

We can use a simple example to demonstrate the idea.

Let's say the original is "I am here, and I am ready."

Here's how I could quote the sentence or part of it.

Important Miscellaneous Information

  1. Avoid long quotations. When you use long quotations, you are giving up space in your essay to someone else, almost as if a guest speaker has entered your paper and is temporarily pushing you aside. Don't let that speaker take away the spotlight from your own writing. Besides, long quotations often contain material that is not necessary for the writer to make his or her point. It's almost always more effective to use shorter quotations, which help highlight the exact words that you feel are most important, the same important words that can be obscured if they are presented as part of a long quotation.
  2. If you must use long quotations, though, you should offset and indent quotation of more than three lines. The entire quotation should be indented 10 spaces from the left (usually two tabs); the right margins do not change from what they are in the rest of your paper. Do not put quotation marks around indented quotes. The indenting alone indicates to readers that the words are being quoted. Indented quotations should be double spaced.
  3. Always use single quotation marks to indicate a quotation within a quotation, as when you quote the words of a character who is speaking or when a quotation contains one or more words that are in quotation marks in the original, as in the following example: Thoreau complains that "hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels." In Thoreau's essay "What's the news?" appears in quotation marks, so, when I quote the sentence in which these words appear, I put my own quotation marks around the entire sentence and turn the quotation marks that are in the original into single quotation marks.
  4. Avoid beginning a paragraph with a quotation. This is because paragraphs usually begin with topic sentences, and beginning a paragraph with a quotation may limits what the writer should talk about in the paragraph to only the quoted words. However, it's sometimes effective to begin an introduction with a thought-provoking quotation.
  5. Avoid ending a paragraph with a quotation. This is because quotations, especially when they are used as supporting evidence, often require some explanation from the writer. Ending a paragraph with a quotation does not allow for this explanation. In addition, a quotation at the end of a paragraph often does not serve as an effective transitional sentence into the next paragraph.
  6. Never quote out of context. In other words, be careful not to present quoted words in a way that gives the words a different meaning than what they convey in the original. An example of quoting out of context would be the following: Concerning the weasel, Dillard says that she "knows what he thinks." I have copied all of the words accurately, but I have still changed Dillard's meaning completely. In the essay, Dillard asks, "Who knows what he thinks?"
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    This page was last updated on January 30, 2012. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.