Writing about Literature

Quotation, Citation, and Documentation

Effective Quotation

Rules You Must Follow

  1. Generally speaking, you should reproduce a quotation exactly as it appears in the original: include every word and preserve original spelling, capitalization, italics, and so on. However, there are a few exceptions:
  • When absolutely necessary, you may make minor changes to the quotation as long as (a) they do not distort the sense of the quotation, and (b) you clearly acknowledge them. For instance:
  • —Additions and substitutions (e.g., of verb endings or pronouns) may be necessary in order to reconcile the quotation’s grammar and syntax with your own or to ensure that the quotation makes sense out of its original context. Enclose these additions and changes in brackets.

  • —Omit material from quotations to ensure you stay focused only on what’s truly essential. Indicate omissions with ellipsis points unless the quotation is obviously a sentence fragment.

    Notice how these rules are followed in the two examples below:

Sethe, like Jacobs, experiences the wish to give up the fight for survival and die, but while Jacobs says she was "willing to bear on" "for the children’s sakes" (127), the reason that Sethe gives for enduring is the physical presence of the baby in her womb: "[I]t didn’t seem such a bad idea [to die],...but the thought of herself stretched out dead while the little antelope lived on...in her lifeless body grieved her so" that she persevered (31).

When Denver tries to leave the haunted house to get food for her mother and Beloved, she finds herself imprisoned within her mother’s time—a time that, clinging to places, is always happening again: "Out there... were places in which things so bad had happened that when you went near them it would happen again...."
—Jean Wyatt, "Giving Body to the Word: The Maternal Symbolic in Toni Morrison’s Beloved," PMLA 108 (May 1993): 474–88

NOTE: In the first example, Wyatt uses brackets to indicate two changes, the capitalization of "it" and the addition of the words "to die." Ellipses indicate that she’s omitted a word or words within the sentence that follows the colon. However, she doesn’t need to begin or end the phrases "willing to bear on" and "for the children’s sake" with ellipses because both are obviously sentence fragments. In the second example, notice that Wyatt does need to end the quotation with ellipsis points. Even though it reads like a complete sentence, this isn’t the case; the sentence continues in the original text.
  • —Occasionally, you may want to draw your readers’ attention to a particular word or phrase within the quotation by using italics. Indicate this change by putting the words "emphasis added" (not underlined or in italics) into your parenthetical citation.

Like his constant references to "Tragedy," the wording of the father’s question demonstrates that he is almost as hesitant as his daughter to confront death head-on: "When will you look it in the face?" he asks her (34; emphasis added).

  • Although you should also accurately reproduce original punctuation, there is one exception to this rule: when incorporating a quotation into a sentence, you may end it with whatever punctuation mark your sentence requires. You do not need to indicate this particular change with brackets.

Whether portrayed as "queen," "saint," or "angel," the same "nameless girl" "looks out from all his canvases" (Rossetti, lines 5–7, 1).

NOTE: In the poem quoted ("In an Artist’s Studio"), the words queen and angel are not followed by commas. Yet the syntax of this sentence requires that commas be added. Similarly, the word canvases is followed by a comma in the poem, but the sentence requires that this comma be changed to a period.

  1. When incorporating short quotations into a sentence, put them in quotation marks and make sure that they fit into the sentence grammatically and syntactically. If necessary, you may make changes to the quotation (e.g., altering verb endings or pronouns) in order to reconcile its grammar and syntax with your own. But you should—again—always indicate changes with brackets.

It isn’t until Mr. Kapasi sees the "topless women" carved on the temple that it "occur[s] to him... that he had never seen his own wife fully naked" (333).

  1. When quoting fewer than three lines of poetry, indicate any line break with a slash mark, any stanza break with a double slash mark.

Before Milton’s speaker can question his "Maker" for allowing him to go blind, "Patience" intervenes "to prevent / That murmur" (lines 8–9), urging him to see that "God doth not need / Either man’s work or his own gifts..." (lines 9–10).

"The cane appears // in our dreams," the speaker explains (Dove, lines 15–16).

  1. Long quotations—four or more lines of prose, three of poetry—should be indented and presented without quotation marks to create a block quotation. In the case of poetry, reproduce original line and stanza breaks.

Whereas the second stanza individualizes the dead martyrs, the third considers the characteristics they shared with each other and with all those who dedicate themselves utterly to any one cause:

     Hearts with one purpose alone
     Through summer and winter seem
     Enchanted to a stone
     To trouble the living stream. (lines 41–44)

Whereas all other "living" people and things are caught up in the "stream" of change represented by the shift of seasons, those who fill their "Hearts with one purpose alone" become as hard, unchanging, and immoveable as stones.

  1. Unless they are indented, quotations belong in double quotation marks; quotations within quotations get single quotation marks. However, if everything in your quotation appears in quotation marks in the original, you do not need to reproduce the single quotation marks.

The words of Rufus Johnson come ringing back to the reader: " ‘Listen here,’ he hissed, ‘I don’t care if he’s good or not. He ain’t right!’ " (468).

As Rufus Johnson says of Sheppard, "I don’t care if he’s good or not. He ain’t right!" (468).

  1. Follow a word-group introducing a quotation with whatever punctuation is appropriate to your sentence. For instance:
  • —If you introduce a quotation with a full independent clause (other than something like She says), separate the two with a colon.

Ironically, Mr. Lindner’s description of the neighborhood’s white residents makes them sound exactly like the Youngers, the very family he’s trying to exclude: "They’re not rich and fancy people; just hard-working, honest people who don’t really have much but...a dream of the kind of community they want to raise their children in" (1986).

  • —If you introduce or interrupt a quotation with an expression such as she says or he writes, use a comma (or commas) or add a that. Likewise, use a comma if you end a quotation with an expression such as he says, unless the quotation ends with a question mark or exclamation point.

Alvarez claims, "The whole poem works on one single, returning note and rhyme..." (1214).

Alvarez suggests that "The whole poem works on one single, returning note and rhyme..." (1214).

"The whole poem," Alvarez argues, "works on one single, returning note and rhyme..." (1214).

"Here comes one," says Puck. "Where art thou, proud Demetrius?" asks Lysander (Shakespeare 3.2.400–401).

  • —If quoted words are blended into your sentence, use the same punctuation (or lack thereof) that you would if the words were not quoted.

Miriam Allott suggests that the odes, like "all Keats’s major poetry," trace the same one "movement of thought and feeling," which "at first carries the poet... into an ideal world of beauty and permanence, and finally returns him to what is actual and inescapable."

Keats’s poetry just as powerfully evokes the beauty of ordinary, natural things—of "the sun, the moon, / Trees," and "simple sheep"; of "daffodils" and "musk-rose blooms" (Endymion, lines 13–14, 15, 19); of nightingales, grasshoppers, and crickets; of "the stubble-plains" and "barred clouds" of a "soft-dying" autumn day ("To Autumn," lines 25–26).

When the narrator’s eighty-six-year-old father asks her to tell him a "simple story" with "recognizable people" and a plot that explains "what happened to them next" (31), he gets "an unadorned and miserable tale" whose protagonist ends up "Hopeless and alone" (31).

  1. Commas and periods belong inside quotation marks, semicolons outside. Question marks and exclamation points go inside quotation marks if they are part of the quotation, outside if they aren’t. (Since parenthetical citations will often alter your punctuation, they have been omitted in the following examples. On the placement and punctuation of parenthetical citations, see Parenthetical Citation.)

"You have a nice sense of humor," the narrator’s father notes, but "you can’t tell a plain story."

Wordsworth calls nature a "homely Nurse"; she has "something of a Mother’s Mind."

What does Johnson mean when he says, "I don’t care if he’s good or not. He ain’t right!"?

Bobby Lee speaks volumes about the grandmother when he says, "She was a talker, wasn’t she?"

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