Using Quotations in Critical Essays

by Matt Hart


Note: This style handout should be used in conjunction with the sheet on MLA referencing. Refer to that handout for direct advice on how to punctuate sentences that include parenthetical references. This handout will apply, but not elucidate, that advice.

  1. Quoting Accurately: As I've said many times in class, one of the key skills in becoming a good writer of critical essays is learning how to explain and exploit direct textual evidence. One of the easiest ways to compromise this skill is to quote inaccurately - it demonstrates inattention to textual detail in the worst possible manner. So, the first law of using quotations is to pay attention!


  2. "Quotation" vs. "Quote": A personal bug-bear of mine. "Quote" is a verb and refers to the act of extracting or repeating a passage of text, be it written or reported speech. "Quotation" is a noun and refers to the item you have extracted or repeated.


  3. Using Short Quotations: One of the most useful skills you can develop is to learn how to embed short quotations within the body of your own text, weaving seamlessly between your argument and the material to which you are referring. The following example might serve as some sort of a model for this practice:

    Venus and Adonis, published by Richard Field in 1593 and addressed to "the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton," begins by immediately invoking its own Ovidian context through an epigraph from the Amores: "Let base-conceited wits admire vile things, / Fair Phoebus lead me to Castilian springs" (Roe, 78). While hymning the classical Muses remains a conventional enough way to begin a poem, John Roe has suggested that one might well interpret Shakespeare's tag as a conscious "signalling [of] the rarefied eroticism that is to follow" (Roe, 78).


  4. Block Quotations: When you feel the need to include a quotation that is more than a few lines long, you should format it as a block quotation (as above). Blockquotes are usually indented half an inch from the left margin but stay flush with the right margin; they are single spaced and are often printed in a smaller font size (though not less than 10-point). As in the example above, block quotations are usually introduced by a colon.


  5. Quoting Poetry: Because line-breaks are so essential to the rhythm, meter and sense of poetry, always be sure to mark these points with "/" marks at the relevant points, as in the lines from Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis extracted above. Always maintain the spelling, punctuation and capitalization of the original text, unless you signal your changes using square brackets or ellipses (see #6 below). If quoting poetry in block form, copy it out as it appears on the page, only omitting line numbers and other editorial marks that are not a part of the original poem.


  6. Editing Quotations: Sometimes it is necessary to emend or edit quotations. When this is the case, use square brackets to signal the changes you have made. The only exception to this rule is with ellipses. The following example should make things clearer:


    	According to William Bradford, "[Morton] employed some of [the
    	Indians] to hunt and fowl for him . . . [But] when they saw the
    	execution a piece would do, and the benefit that might come by the
    	same, they became mad . . . . accounting their bows and arrows but
    	baubles in comparison of them" (Bradford, 189).

    In this extract the words replaced by those in square brackets are "he," "them" and "So as when." The writer has altered these terms in order to make the quote fit the context of her argument (where the identity of those represented by these pronouns is not certain) and to alter the sense so as to prevent the cuts signalled by her ellipses from making Bradford's prose incoherent. The ellipses let the reader know that some text has been omitted at this point. Use three dots (. . .) to signal a cut within a single sentence and four (. . . .) to signal that the cut runs over a period in the original text. If your ellipsis starts at the end of a complete sentence, use the following procedure: "The instructor's lecture on the Enlightenment was boring. . . . and I didn't understand what he meant by tabula rasa." In this example, the original sentence finished after "boring" and an edit was made after the period and before "and." The three dots signal that "and I didn't understand . . ." is part of the next full sentence after "boring."