Using Quotations (with Examples)

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Using Quotations

The reasons for using quotations in your work include:
  • Analyzing another's writing.
  • Borrowing another's words.
  • Eliciting another's support.
using quotations

Before we look at how you can insert quotations into your work, let's examine the word "quotation."

What Is a Quotation?

A quotation is a group of words that are repeated by someone other than the original author or writer.

There are two types of quotation:
  • A Direct Quotation. A direct quotation is an exact copy of the original. A direct quotation is shown by placing it between quotation marks.
  • An Indirect Quotation. An indirect quotation is close copy of the original, but it is paraphrased to fit its surroundings. An indirect quotation does not have quotation marks.

Examples of Direct Quotations

Below are some examples of direct quotations. Remember that direct quotations are exact copies of the original.
  • "I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have." (President Thomas Jefferson)
  • "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." (Statesman Napoleon Bonaparte)
Note: Direct quotations can be altered, but the alterations must be shown with square parentheses [].
(There's more on this below.)

Examples of Indirect Quotations

Below are some examples of indirect quotations. Remember that these have been paraphrased.
  • Thomas Jefferson once said that the harder he worked, the more luck he seemed to have.
  • According to Napoleon, you should never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Punctuation before a Quotation

When introducing a quotation with an expression like "He said" or "She claimed" (called "terms of attribution"), you can use a comma, a colon, or nothing. It depends on your desired flow of text. So, there's leniency on which punctuation to use before your quotation. For example:
  • Sherlock Holmes turned to Watson and said: "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."
  • (Colon used)
  • Tillman claimed, "The world is my lobster."
  • (Comma used)
  • He looked up and said "D'oh!"
  • (Nothing used)
If you're unsure whether to precede your quotation with nothing, a comma, or a colon, then opt for a colon if either the introduction or the quotation is an independent clause (i.e., could stand alone as a single idea). For example:
  • She offered the following advice: "Don't drink the water."
  • (Here, "She offered the following advice" is an independent clause.)
  • She said: "Don't drink the water."
  • (A colon is still appropriate because "Don't drink the water" is an independent clause.)
Conversely, if neither the introduction nor the quotation is an independent clause, go for a comma or nothing. For example:
  • Pointing at the leaves, she said, "poisonousness."
  • (Here, "Pointing at the leaves, she said" is not an independent clause. You could omit the comma after "said" if you wanted the text to flow more smoothly.)
This only applies when a term of attribution immediately precedes the quotation. If there is no term of attribution, use nothing.
  • She described the leaves as "poisonousness."
Read more about using a colon, comma, or nothing before a quotation.

Verbs of Attribution

Here is a list of verbs of attribution that you can use to introduce a quotation.

General verbs of attribution:
  • accepts, acknowledges, addresses, adds, advises, allows, analyzes, answers, argues, asks, asserts, assumes, assures, believes, categorizes, challenges, charges, cites, claims, comments, compares, concedes, concludes, considers, contends, deals, decides, declares, defines, describes, discusses, echoes, emphasizes, exclaims, explains, expresses, finds, grants, holds, hypothesizes, illustrates, implies, indicates, insists, interprets, introduces, lists, maintains, mentions, notes, observes, offers, offers, points out, proposes, questions, realizes, reasons, remarks, replies, reports, responds, reveals, says, shows, speculates, states, suggests, supposes, thinks, uses, utilizes, warns, with, wonders, writes
Verbs of attribution that show agreement:
  • affirms, agrees, concedes, concurs with, confirms, echoes, supports, verifies
Verbs of attribution that show disagreement:
  • counters, criticizes, denies, disagrees, disputes, objects, opposes, refutes, rejects
Top Tip

Choose the one that works for your context. Don't pick the one that sounds most highbrow (especially if you're not 100% sure of its meaning).

Square Parentheses (Brackets) with a Direct Quotation

With direct quotations, you can use square parentheses (i.e., square brackets) to show the reader that the words are not from the original.

Here is an original quotation:
  • I never believed in him because I knew no white dude would come to my estate at night.
Let's use square parentheses to clarify the quotation:
  • I never believed in him [Santa Clause] because I knew no white dude would come to my estate at night.
  • (In this version, "[Santa Clause]" has been added after "him" to aid understanding.)
  • I never believed in [Santa Clause] because I knew no white dude would come to my estate at night.
  • (In this version, "[Santa Clause]" has replaced "him" to aid understanding. This is also acceptable.)
Read more about using square parentheses.

[sic] with a Direct Quotation

The term [sic] (which is often italicized and used with square parentheses) can be used to make it clear that the text is from the original. It is often used when the originator makes a grammar or spelling mistake. For example:
  • Using a stick in the wet sand, Jill wrote: "Your [sic] gorgeous."
  • (Note: This should be "you're" not "your." The author is making it clear this was Jill's error.)
Read more about using [sic] and square parentheses.

Ellipsis for Omitted Text

Three dots (called ellipsis) can be used to show where text has been omitted from a direct quotation. For example:
  • I never believed ... I knew no white dude would come to my estate.
Read more about ellipsis.

Using Long Quotations

When a quotation contains multiple paragraphs (or is a text with lots of new lines), a common convention is to use an opening quotation mark at the start of each paragraph (to remind your readers that they're still reading a quotation) but only one closing quotation mark at the end of the last paragraph. For example:
In 1912, the publisher Arthur C. Fifield sent Gertrude Stein the following rejection letter shortly after receiving her manuscript for The Making of Americans:

"Dear Madam,

"I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time. Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.

"Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.

"Sincerely yours,

"A. C. Fifield"

Notice how only the last "paragraph" (in this case, the name) gets a closing quotation mark.

Why Should I Care about Using Quotations?

Here are three good reasons to include quotations in your work:
  • Analyzing the words in the quotation. (If you're going to dissect someone else's text, you should show it.)
  • Using someone else's words because their words are elegant, impactful, or memorable. (And, you don't want to be caught claiming them as your own.)
  • Bolstering your argument by calling on the support of a recognized authority.
As these reasons are varied, the methods you use to embed quotations into your work will vary. This means you must become adept at introducing quotations, trimming them, and inserting explainers into them to ensure they work in your text.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

More about using a colon, comma, or nothing before a quotation More about square parentheses What is ellipsis? Double or single quotation marks? Glossary of grammatical terms