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Punctuating Quotations In Essays Are Poems

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How much should I quote?

The focus of your essay should be on your understanding of the topic. If you include too much quotation in your essay, you will crowd out your own ideas. Consider quoting a passage from one of your sources if any of the following conditions holds:

  1. The language of the passage is particularly elegant or powerful or memorable.
  2. You wish to confirm the credibility of your argument by enlisting the support of an authority on your topic.
  3. The passage is worthy of further analysis.
  4. You wish to argue with someone else's position in considerable detail.

Condition 3 is especially useful in essays for literature courses.

If an argument or a factual account from one of your sources is particularly relevant to your paper but does not deserve to be quoted verbatim, consider

  • paraphrasing the passage if you wish to convey the points in the passage at roughly the same level of detail as in the original
  • summarizing the relevant passage if you wish to sketch only the most essential points in the passage

Note that most scientific writing relies on summary rather than quotation. The same is true of writing in those social sciences—such as experimental psychology—that rely on controlled studies and emphasize quantifiable results. (Almost all of the examples in this handout follow the MLA system of citation, which is widely used in the humanities and in those social sciences with a less quantitative approach.)

Visit our handout on paraphrase and summary.

Why is it important to identify my sources?

Quotations come from somewhere, and your reader will want to know where. Don't just parachute quotations into your essay without providing at least some indication of who your source is. Letting your reader know exactly which authorities you rely on is an advantage: it shows that you have done your research and that you are well acquainted with the literature on your topic.

In the following passage, the parenthetical reference to the author does not adequately identify the source:

The ancient Greeks never saw a need to justify wars that were waged outside the walls of the city state. "Hence we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war, together with the first notion that there are just and unjust wars" (Arendt 12). Yet the Roman conception of a just war differs sharply from more modern conceptions.

When you are making decisions about how to integrate quotations into your essay, you might imagine that you are reading the essay out loud to an audience. You would not read the parenthetical note. Without some sort of introduction, your audience would not even know that the statement about Roman antiquity was a quotation, let alone where the quotation came from.

How do I introduce a short quotation?

The following offers just one way of introducing the above quotation:

The ancient Greeks never saw a need to justify wars that were waged outside the walls of the city state. As Hannah Arendt points out in On Revolution, "we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war, together with the first notion that there are just and unjust wars" (12). Yet the Roman conception of a just war differs sharply from more modern conceptions.

Since the quotation is relatively short, the brief introduction works.

You could, however, strengthen your analysis by demonstrating the significance of the passage within your own argument. Introducing your quotation with a full sentence would help you assert greater control over the material:

The ancient Greeks never saw a need to justify wars that were waged outside the walls of the city state. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt points to the role the Romans played in laying the foundation for later thinking about the ethics of waging war: "we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war, together with the first notion that there are just and unjust wars" (12). Yet the Roman conception of a just war differs sharply from more modern conceptions.

In these two examples, observe the forms of punctuation used to introduce the quotations. When you introduce a quotation with a full sentence, you should always place a colon at the end of the introductory sentence. When you introduce a quotation with an incomplete sentence, you usually place a comma after the introductory phrase. However, it has become grammatically acceptable to use a colon rather than a comma:

Arendt writes: "we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war . . ."

If you are blending the quotation into your own sentence using the conjuction that, do not use any punctuation at all:

Arendt writes that "we must turn to Roman antiquity to find the first justification of war . . ."

If you are not sure whether to punctuate your introduction to a quotation, mentally remove the quotation marks, and ask yourself whether any punctuation is still required.

Finally, note that you can deviate from the common pattern of introduction followed by quotation. Weaving the phrases of others into your own prose offers a stylistically compelling way of maintaining control over your source material. Moreover, the technique of weaving can help you to produce a tighter argument. The following condenses twelve lines from Arendt's essay to fewer than two:

What Arendt refers to as the "well-known realities of power politics" began to lose their moral legitimacy when the First World War unleashed "the horribly destructive" forces of warfare "under conditions of modern technology" (13).

What verbs and phrases can I use to introduce my quotations?

Familiarize yourself with the various verbs commonly used to introduce quotations. Here is a partial list:

argues writes points out concludes comments notes
maintains suggests insists observes counters asserts
states claims demonstrates says explains reveals

Each verb has its own nuance. Make sure that the nuance matches your specific aims in introducing the quotation.

There are other ways to begin quotations. Here are three common phrasings:

In the words of X, . . .

According to X, . . .

In X's view, . . .

Vary the way you introduce quotations to avoid sounding monotonous. But never sacrifice precision of phrasing for the sake of variety.

Visit the U of T Writing Website's page on verbs for referring to sources.

How do I introduce a long quotation?

If your quotation is lengthy, you should almost always introduce it with a full sentence that helps capture how it fits into your argument. If your quotation is longer than four lines, do not place it in quotation marks. Instead, set it off as a block quotation:

Although Dickens never shied away from the political controversies of his time, he never, in Orwell's view, identified himself with any political program:

The truth is that Dickens' criticism of society is almost exclusively moral. Hence his lack of any constructive suggestion anywhere in his work. He attacks the law, parliamentary government, the educational system and so forth, without ever clearly suggesting what he would put in their places. Of course it is not necessarily the business of a novelist, or a satirist, to make constructive suggestions, but the point is that Dickens' attitude is at bottom not even destructive. . . . For in reality his target is not so much society as human nature. (416)

The full-sentence introduction to a block quotation helps demonstrate your grasp of the source material, and it adds analytical depth to your essay. But the introduction alone is not enough. Long quotations almost invariably need to be followed by extended analysis. Never allow the quotation to do your work for you. Usually you will want to keep the quotation and your analysis together in the same paragraph. Hence it is a good idea to avoid ending a paragraph with a quotation. But if your analysis is lengthy, you may want to break it into several paragraphs, beginning afresh after the quotation.

Once in a while you can reverse the pattern of quotation followed by analysis. A felicitously worded or an authoritative quotation can, on occasion, nicely clinch an argument.

There is some flexibility in the rule that block quotations are for passages of four lines or more: a shorter passage can be represented as a block quotation if it is important enough to stand on its own. For example, when you are quoting two or more lines of poetry, you will probably want to display the verse as it appears on the page:

In the opening heroic couplet of The Rape of the Lock, Pope establishes the unheroic nature of the poem's subject matter:

What dire offense from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things. (1-2)

If you choose to integrate verse into your own sentence, then use a slash surrounded by spaces to indicate line breaks:

In Eliot's The Waste Land, the symbols of a mythic past lie buried in "A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief" (22-23).

How do I let my reader know I've altered my sources?

If you need to alter your quotations in any way, be sure to indicate just how you have done so. If you remove text, then replace the missing text with an ellipsis—three periods surrounded by spaces:

In The Mirror and the Lamp, Abrams comments that the "diversity of aesthetic theories . . . makes the task of the historian a very difficult one" (5).

If the omitted text occurs between sentences, then put a space after the period at the end of sentence, and follow that by an ellipsis. In all, there will be four periods. (See Orwell on Dickens, above.)

Many people overuse ellipses at the beginning and end of quotations. Use an ellipsis in either place only when your reader might otherwise mistake an incomplete sentence for a complete one:

Abraham Lincoln begins "The Gettysburg Address" with a reminder of the act upon which the United States was founded: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation . . ." (1).

Do not use an ellipsis if you are merely borrowing a phrase from the original:

In "The Gettysburg Address" Abraham Lincoln reminds his listeners of the principles that had inspired the creation of "a new nation" (1).

If you need to alter or replace text from the original, enclose the added text within square brackets. You may, for example, need to alter text to ensure that pronouns agree with their antecedents. Do not write,

Gertrude asks her son Hamlet to "cast your nighted colour off" (1.2.68).

Square brackets allow you to absorb Gertrude's words into your own statement:

Gertrude asks her son Hamlet to "cast [his] nighted colour off" (1.2.68).

Alternatively, you can include Gertrude's original phrasing in its entirety as long as the introduction to the quotation is not fully integrated with the quotation. The introduction can be an independent clause:

Gertrude implores her son Hamlet to stop mourning the death of his father: "cast your nighted colour off" (I.ii.68).

Or it can be an incomplete sentence:

Gertrude implores her son Hamlet, "cast your nighted colour off" (1.2.68).

How is punctuation affected by quotation?

You must preserve the punctuation of a quoted passage, or else you must enclose in square brackets any punctuation marks that are your own.

There is, however, one important exception to this rule. You are free to alter the punctuation just before a closing quotation mark. You may need to do so to ensure that your sentences are fully grammatical. Do not worry about how the original sentence needs to be punctuated before that quotation mark; think about how your sentence needs to be punctuated. Note, for example, that if you are using the MLA system of referencing, a sentence always ends after the parenthetical reference. Do not also include a period before closing the quotation mark, even if there is a period there in the original. For example, do not write,

According to Schama, Louis XVI remained calm during his trial: "The Terror had no power to frighten an old man of seventy-two." (822).

The period before the closing quotation mark must go:

According to Schama, Louis XVI remained calm during his trial: "The Terror had no power to frighten an old man of seventy-two" (822).

However, if you are using footnotes, the period remains inside the quotation mark, while the footnote number goes outside:

According to Schama, Louis XVI remained calm during his trial: "The Terror had no power to frighten an old man of seventy-two."1

In Canada and the United States, commas and periods never go outside a quotation mark. They are always absorbed as part of the quotation, whether they belong to you or to the author you are quoting:

"I am a man / more sinned against than sinning," Lear pronounces in Act 3, Scene 2 (59-60).

However, stronger forms of punctuation such as question marks and exclamation marks go inside the quotation if they belong to the author, and outside if they do not:

Bewildered, Lear asks the fool, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" (1.4.227).

Why is Lear so rash as to let his "two daughters' dowers digest the third" (1.1.127)?

Finally, use single quotation marks for all quotations within quotations:

When Elizabeth reveals that her younger sister has eloped, Darcy drops his customary reserve: "'I am grieved, indeed,' cried Darcy, 'grieved—shocked'" (Austen 295).

Written by Jerry Plotnick, Director, University College Writing Centre

Quotations

Different style sheets (MLA, Chicago, etc.) have different conventions for quoting in literary essays. Normally I am tolerant of variations, but many students do not seem aware of some features shared by all for quoting poetry. Please follow the guidelines below (and your other professors will appreciate it if you do this in other classes).

Cite page numbers for prose and line numbers for poetry. If you are quoting a poem translated into prose, cite line numbers if possible; otherwise cite page numbers. If you aren't sure about the difference between poetry and prose, click here.

If you are citing The Canterbury Tales from The Riverside Chaucer, you may replace the name of the tale with the fragment number. Hence you may cite line 1 of the Knight's Tale as "(Knight's Tale, 1)" or as "(I.859)" (that is, line 859 of Fragment I).

When citing poetry indicate the line breaks you find in the edition you are quoting from. Do not cite the text as continuous prose.

Short Quotations

If you are quoting under four lines of poetry, indicate the line breaks with "/". Here is an example from an essay on Chaucer:

[Chaucer's] images are simple and direct. They are for the most part introduced with nothing more than a "like to", or "as", and cover all phases of human activity, and make their effect by their homely and immediate appeal. The bells on the Monk's bridle ring "in a whistlynge wynd als cleere, / And eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle" (General Prologue, 170-171).

Remember to separate the "/" from any other text or punctuation with spaces on either side.

If your quotation is longer than four lines, you must indicate line breaks as they are printed in the text from which you are quoting--without slashes. The quotation must be indented and formatted as described below.

Longer Quotations

If your quotation consists of four or more lines or prose or poetry, follow the guidelines below:

  • Separate the quotation from the main text of your essay by indenting it. You may single space the quotation, but do not centre the text and do not change the font.
  • The indentation indicates that the text is a quotation; you do not need quotations marks. However, if the quotation contains but does not consist entirely of dialogue, use quotation marks for the dialogue portions of the quotation.
  • You must indicate the line breaks in poetry as they are printed in the text from which you are quoting. Do not use slashes.

Here are two examples:

The arming scene calls our attention to the difficulties of judging Gawain's actions. Hollis nicely states the problem:

The poem itself prompts us to ask questions about the process involved in Gawain's action. The arming scene, in its interpretation of the pentangle symbol, presents us with an apparently perfect hero, one whose virtues are so preeminent and so tightly integrated that it appears impossible for evil to find entry (619-65, esp. 656-61). How, then, does it happen that, much as Gawain and the Green Knight differ in their judgement, Gawain acts in such a way that both agree he has fallen short of perfection? (1)

It is thus important to consider in what ways Gawain considers himself to have failed. Gawain makes four attempts to explain his failing, each quite distinct in kind. His initial reaction to the Green Knight's revelation is to regard his action in terms of specific vices causing the destruction of virtue:

"Corsed worth cowarddyse and couetyse bothe!
In yow is vylany and vyse that vertue disstryez."
Thenne he ka3t to the knot, and the kest lawsez,
Brayde brothely the belt to the burne seluen"
"Lo! ther the falssyng, foule mot his falle!" (2374-84)

Gawain's account of his behaviour here is reminiscent of the action of a morality play.

Here is an example without any dialogue:

First we may take his work in rhyme royal and look at a passage in which a sense of considerable emotion has to be conveyed:

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye, alwey that slit so yerne:
Al this mene I by Love, that my felynge
Astonyeth with his wonderful werkynge
So sore iwis, that whan I on hym thynke,
Nat wot I wel where that I flete or synke. (The Parliament of Fowls, ll. 1-7)

Now while it is true, as Professor Manly points out that his passage in an example of the rhetorical method of beginning a poem with a sententia, it is even more important to observe how Chaucer has given the bare idea a life and emotion of his own.

Commas before Quotations

Comma placement before a quotation also causes people trouble. Notice that in 'The bells on the Monk's bridle ring "in a whistlynge wynd als cleere…"' there is no comma after "ring" and before the beginning of the quote? This is because the quotation works grammatically in the sentence. In this case, the first letter of the quotation should be lower case (unless the first word is a proper noun). With shorter quotations you should attempt to do this wherever possible on stylistic grounds. Here are some examples of quotations integrated into the grammar of the sentence.

The next step is his alliance with covetousness -- he identifies himself with a vice, forsaking his true nature to become "fawty and falce" (2382).

Gawain has very good reasons besides modesty to decline the Lady's offer to "take the toruayle to myself to trwluf expoun" (1540).

The Lady of the Castle appeals to Gawain's "manhod" when she reminds him that he is "stif innoghe to constrayne wyth strenkthe" (1497).

Putter argues that "the poet's commitment to ideals of courtoisie, the high standards of refinement and delicacy imperative at court, inevitably entails emphasis on coarseness and locus to which it is intrinsic" (47-48).

Both versions introduce Tom Bombadil without further explanation as "a merry fellow" (646). Both also give Tom four adventures, or encounters with malignant powers.

Eomer says that "wanderers in the Riddermark would be wise to be less haughty in these days of doubt" (645-55).

Shippey argues that "Tolkien knew (none better) that dwarf-names he had used in The Hobbit came from Old Norse" (55).

If you are quoting dialogue, or a statement made by an author, and you are drawing attention to it as a statement, a comma normally precedes the quote. This almost always comes after a verb like "says", "asks", "responds", "states", "screams", etc. In these instances, the quotation begins with a capital letter. Consider the following examples:

At the end of the first part of the Knight's Tale, Chaucer asks, "Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?" (Knight's Tale, 1348).

The narrator's own summing up is, indeed, a slightly tempered view of the absolute perfection put forward in 632-35. Hearing the Green Knight's challenge, Arthur responds, "Sir cortays knyght, / If thou crave batayl bare, / Here faylez thou not to fyght" (276-78).

He says, "This pure fyue / Were harder happed on that hathel then on any other" (645-55).

According to Putter, "The great Ricardian poets bequeathed to modern criticism a suspicion about the literary seriousness of Arthurian romance" (1).

Both versions introduce Tom Bombadil without further explanation: "Old Tom Bombadil was a merry fellow; / bright blue his jacket was, and his boots were yellow" (646). Both also give Tom four adventures, or encounters with malignant powers.

Eomer says, "Wanderers in the Riddermark would be wise to be less haughty in these days of doubt" (645-55).

According to Shippey, "Tolkien knew (none better) that dwarf-names he had used in The Hobbit came from Old Norse" (55).

Integrating Quotations

When you include a quotation to illustrate a point you have made, the quotation should be followed by an explanation of how the material in the quotation illustrates your point.

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Last Update: 20 March, 2003