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How and when to quote

I have a confession to make. I often skip the long blocks of quotes when I am reading academic articles and books. I suspect that I’m not the only one who does this.

I don’t skip the quotes because I’m lazy. I skip them because they often pull me away from a writer’s ideas rather than further into them. The writer has put a voice and an idea in my ear only to cede the floor to another voice, that of some quoted authority. A long quote, or worse, a series of them, can leave me asking “Yes, but what was your point again?”

How does all this over-quoting arise? In school, teachers require beginning writers to cite sources in their summaries, paraphrases, and direct quotations, but some students confuse research with mere quotation and the weakest of them write research papers consisting of a series of whole paragraphs quoted from different sources. Like this:

Quotations are used for a variety of reasons: to illuminate the meaning or to support the arguments of the work in which it is being quoted, to provide direct information about the work being quoted (whether in order to discuss it, positively or negatively), to pay homage to the original work or author, to make the user of the quotation seem well-read, and/or to comply with copyright law. Quotations are also commonly printed as a means of inspiration and to invoke philosophical thoughts from the reader. (Wikipedia)

As writers get more sophisticated, they learn to find primary sources, to identify a source’s authority and stance, and to discuss the relevance of the quote to their own points. But many writers still quote too much and for the wrong reasons. Over-quoting can become a lifelong bad habit.

When is it a good idea to quote? You should quote when you want to amplify a source’s point with additional support and new evidence. And you should certainly quote when you want to disagree with a source. Letting the source speak for himself or herself helps to show that you are not mischaracterizing a writers’ views when you challenge them.

You also should quote when the language of the original is particularly significant, controversial, or evocative. That includes most literary quotations and many technical ones. But after you quote a technical point or definition, it is important to reestablish your voice by explaining why the quote matters. And before you quote you should provide some context to what follows and introduce your sources bona fides. This is the well-known “quote sandwich” consisting of framing, quote, and commentary.

When should you think twice about quoting? It is always a bad idea to quote if you are unsure of what the source is saying.

When should you think twice about quoting? It is always a bad idea to quote if you are unsure of what the source is saying. When we are new to a topic or discipline, it is tempting to cite some technical language about a troublesome concept, hope the reader understands it better than we do, and change the subject. Such a quote-and-run approach is a recipe for frustrating the reader.

There is also the temptation to quote at the ending of a section of an article or chapter to sum up a discussion with someone else’s insight. Often, though, the quote will hang out there like an orphaned idea. Unless you can say why a quote is important in your own words, consider leaving it out.

I also suggest avoiding long quotes if you are just citing someone who agrees with you. If you are both taking the same position, the reader doesn’t need to hear it twice. Just summarize the point of agreement and move onto what you want to say. If the source’s reasoning is important to your exposition but not the actual language, a paraphrase will often suffice, perhaps with a short key phrase quoted. Paraphrasing and summary (with appropriate citations, naturally) allows you to maintain your own voice in a piece of writing. As you become more immersed in a topic and more of an expert, you will tend to quote less: more things will be common knowledge to you and the expert audience you are writing for.

Quotes can be an important part of a writers’ toolbox, if they are used strategically. If you follow the relatively simple suggestions, your quotes will be more effective and readers will skip fewer of them.

And you can quote me on that.

Featured image credit: “The ‘Library'” by Quinn Dombrowski. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Wendy Henson

    “You also should quote when the language of the original is particularly significant, controversial, or evocative.” Placing ‘also’ before ‘should’ rather than after is bad English. (A sub-editors fetish in this case?)

  2. Wendy Henson

    PS. (Skitt’s Law) I noticed as I pressed ‘post comment’ that my sticky keyboard (curse it!) had left out the ” ‘ ” in “sub-editor’s”.

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