To quote is to reproduce what someone else has previously expressed. It is important to pay attention to quotation rules, such as the necessity to give the exact wording of the source that is being quoted and to identify the source.
As will be discussed here, quotations must also be contextualised, properly introduced and identified.
Below, information is given about the following aspects of quoting:
- When to quote
- How to quote
- The use of quotation marks
- How to edit quotations
- Other uses of quotation marks in academic writing
When to quote
The prevalence of quotations differs between disciplines, and writers need to comply with the conventions of their specific field.
When used, quotations should be smoothly integrated into the text. Writers need to make sure that they do not quote too much and too often. A text with an excessive number of quotations is not only difficult to read; in most cases it also comes across as lacking in originality.
Quotations are commonly used to clarify some aspect that is being discussed or to substantiate a claim that is made in the text:
To clarify or define
A quotation can be used to define, describe or explain something that is being discussed:
Meerkats, the "foot-tall, slender-tailed, pointy-nosed" little animals that are also called suricates, belong to the mongoose family (Usborne 2009, para. 1).
Here, the quotation was chosen because it so succinctly describes the animal referred to. The quotation thus functions as a definition of the animal that is being introduced.
To substantiate a claim
A quotation may also be used to support the claim that is being made:
Meerkats have become tremendously popular; The Independent claims that "Britain has gone mad for these upstanding citizens of the Kalahari desert" (Usborne, 2009, para. 2).
To back up a statement (that the popularity of meerkats has increased), a quote from a well-known newspaper is provided. The reputable source adds to the trustworthiness of the statement, which itself is quite striking, thus adding to the effect; Britain is said to have "gone mad" and the animals themselves are referred to as "upstanding citizens of the Kalahari desert".
How to quote
Since quotations by definition are exact renderings of what someone else has written, said or otherwise expressed, they must be correctly reproduced. Furthermore, they must be contextualised, properly introduced and identified.
Quotations must be contextualised
Writers must make sure to quote in a way that does not misrepresent the quoted text. To contextualise a quotation means to frame it in a way that presents the correct situation and gives the necessary information for the reader to understand the quoted piece. Since the reader cannot be expected to know the exact context of the quotation, the writer must provide the reader with this information in order to avoid misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
Quotations must be properly introduced
In order to be fully understood, quotations must be introduced. As stated above, the function of quotations is often to exemplify or clarify something, and sometimes writers choose to show the exact wording of a source for some other reason. In any case, the function of a quotation should be that of illustrating the writer's argument; a quotation must never be the argument itself. Therefore, quotations must be introduced, and, preferably, also commented on.
Quotations must never stand on their own in between the writer's sentences, but should be merged into the writer's sentence in an appropriate manner, for instance by using reporting verbs/phrases. There are various ways of doing this, and practices vary between disciplines and reference styles.
Read more about this:
Quotations must be identified
When a quotation is included in a written text, the source must be given. The correct procedure for this depends on the reference style used. Read more in the AWELU section on reference styles:
The use of quotation marks
The punctuation marks used to signal quotations are called inverted commas or quotation marks. Depending on the font used, quotation marks are either vertical, as the ones used on this website, or typographical (also known as curly quotation marks).
Single or double quotation marks?
To distinguish between quotations and quotations-within-quotations, either double quotation marks are used for the quotation and single for the quotation-within-quotation, or vice versa.
British publishers tend to use single quotation marks for quotations, whereas North American publishers usually favour double quotation marks. As mentioned previously, practices vary, however; therefore, anyone writing for publication needs to check the preference of the publisher. In either case, consistency within the text is vital.
Short quotation or long quotation?
When pieces of text are being quoted, this is indicated in different ways, depending on the length of the quoted passage. Short quotations are fully integrated in the text, whereas long quotations are set off from the running text in block quotations.
Block quotations do not have quotation marks; by setting the quotation off from the text the writer indicates that the piece of text is a quotation. The left margin of the block quotation is indented (sometimes the right margin, too), which means that it is not aligned with the rest of the text. Note that if there is a quotation within the block quotation, that quotation-within-the-quotation will keep its quotation marks.
What is defined as a 'long quotation' differs between references styles; for instance, APA draws the limit at 40 words.
How to edit quotations
Sometimes, writers wish to amend their quotation. That is possible, provided that the following is taken into consideration. Note, too, that the intention of the quotation may not be misrepresented or changed in any way.
The use of ellipsis
If it is not possible to fit the quoted passage into the sentence structure of the text you are writing, or if the quoted passage is unnecessarily long, it is possible to make changes through the use of square brackets. When something from the original passage is removed, we sometimes talk about ellipsis.
Three dots ... or square brackets and three dots [...] are used to show that words have been excluded, and square brackets with words inserted are used to show what words have been inserted or changed.
No changes must be made to an original text without this being indicated, and such square brackets should only be used to clarify something in the quotation, for grammatical reasons, or to shorten a text. No changes must be made that alter the ideas or the results that are expressed in the original text.
As seen in the examples below, square brackets are used in different situations to edit quotations:
The use of emphasis
If the writer wishes to add emphasis to one or more words in the quotation, these words can be italicised. The reference then has to be accompanied by a comment indicating this change.
The use of [sic]
If there is a spelling mistake or any other error in the text that is quoted, the writer can point this out by adding the word [sic] after the inaccurate word or phrase. By doing this, he or she shows that the mistake is in the original text.
The Latin word 'sic,' which means 'thus,' is placed after the word to which the writer wishes to draw the reader's attention. There is some variation between reference styles – some use italics and square brackets, whereas other styles prefer non-italics and parenthesis.
A note of caution is in place here; it is not always necessary to reproduce the mistake of others. As the Oxford Style Manual (2003) argues,
Often it is unfair and unnecessary to [...] draw attention to what may be no more than dittography or printer's error: unless the mistake has textual significance, transmitting the content of the quoted matter is usually more important than reproducing its original form, warts and all.
(Ritter, p. 192-193)
Note: "Dittography" means "Double writing; the unintentional repetition of a letter or word, or series of letters or words, by a copyist" (Oxford English Dictionary).
Other uses of quotation marks in academic writing
Quotation marks can be used to set off words from the text that the writer wishes to highlight:
'Wellies' is the short form for wellington boots, named after Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.
In some reference styles, quotations marks are used to indicate titles of articles, poems, songs, and other forms of texts that form part of larger units.