Using quotations effectively in your essays

By admin
Category: Academic | Date: Sun 09 Nov, 2008

Whatever subject you’re doing at uni, you’ll probably have to write an essay at some point. And in your essay, chances are you’ll want to quote from someone else: either a primary source (such as a letter or diary if you’re studying history, or a novel if you’re studying literature) or a critic.

Here’s how to use quotations correctly and effectively in your essays.

Citing sources

Different universities will have different guidelines on this, so it’s best to check with your department’s handbook. If you don’t have clear guidelines there, then:

  • Put brief details of the source (e.g. the name of the person being quoted, and the book or document which the quote is from) in brackets immediately after the quote. It’s usually useful to include a page number, if appropriate. Put a footnote or endnote with full details.
  • OR simply put a footnote or endnote.

The first method is often preferred by the person who has to mark your essay, as they don’t have to look to the footnotes or endnotes to see where the quote is from.

If you use the same source again without using any other sources, then you can just put “ibid” to indicate that the quote is from the same source as the previous one. This goes for your footnotes or endnotes as well as the body of your essay.

Don’t get too anxious about the exact format of references; the main thing is to be consistent, and to always acknowledge where your information is on (don’t ever try to imply that a quote from a book or journal is your own work).

Layout of quotes

If you’re quoting more than a single line from a source, you’ll normally want to put it in block quote format. This means indenting on the left of the page to offset the quoted paragraph from your own text. Some people also like to put block quotes in italics or in a different font, to make it really clear that this is quoted material.

Here’s an example:

This paragraph is indented and in a different font. If you’re using an RSS reader, you might want to click through and see it on the Alpha Student site.

Sometimes, you might want to quote just a few words from a source or critic, within one of your own sentences. For example, in an essay on Othello, you might write:

Coleridge famously attributed Iago’s actions to ‘motiveless malignity’.

In this case, all you need to do is put quotation marks around the words which you’re quoting. You should also put a footnote with the full reference. If you’re disagreeing with a writer, you may want to give a full quote as a block quote, then take issue with a few words in this way.

For example, I question Stedmond’s assertion that the reader can “supply his own meaning” in an essay on Tristram Shandy:

Stedmond suggests that:

Often [Sterne] seems to want to supplement the communicative powers of the printed words. A blank page or a blackened one, a row of asterisks, are really an invitation to the reader to supply his own meaning, using the context as clues.

However, it is questionable how far the reader really can “supply his own meaning”; the asterisks often seem either so extensive as to be ignored and skipped over entirely, or so obvious in meaning that the reader can only supply what Sterne intends.

Introducing quotes smoothly

When using a quote within your own sentence, make it grammatically part of the sentence. For example:

However, it is questionable how far the reader really can “supply his own meaning”

Coleridge famously attributed Iago’s actions to ‘motiveless malignity’.

When introducing a block quote, simply start off with a colon like this:

On page 60, we have the famous passage where he addresses the gold as “O drug!”, realises how worthless it is to him, alone on an island, but takes it anyway; then on page 129 he tells us:

I had, as I hinted before, a parcel of money, as well gold as silver, about thirty-six pounds sterling. Alas! There the nasty, sorry, useless stuff lay; I had no manner of business for it… (Robinson Crusoe, p60)

Some useful phrases to use for introducing a quote are:

He states that:

  • [Name] argues that:
  • Passages such as:
  • [Name] points out:
  • As [Name] writes:
  • [Name] suggests:

Ultimately, don’t spend too long agonising over the exact formatting and referencing of the quotes in your essay – the important thing is that you include plenty of quotes rather than making sweeping assertions without any evidence to back them up!

Further reading:

  • How to Present Quotations in Essays – some great advice on making quotations “flow” as part of your text, and on using square brackets to alter quotations where necessary.
  • Using Quotations in Your Essay – tips on using quotations powerfully, not just because you’re padding out your essay. Also gives some examples of integrating quotations smoothly.
  • StudyHood: Using Quotations In Your Essay – particularly useful if you’re struggling with how best to punctuate the quotations that you’re using.

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