By Dr. Harold William Halbert

One problem we often face when we write a source-based paper is how to handle quotations. Simply deciding when to use a quote or paraphrase can be difficult; the actual mechanics of signaling the use of a quote, integrating the quote into a sentence, and then making sure you put the punctuation in the right place can be a real nightmare.

In this guide, we will take a look at the following issues:

When to paraphrase vs. when to quote 

Using signal phrases 

Using the source's name

Punctuating quotes

Quotes in Quotes

Block quotes 

Special issues with poetry 

Cutting text out of quotes using ellipses (. . . )

Adding text to quotes

Adding italics for emphasis

Dealing with typographical errors in the original quote 

When to Paraphrase vs. When to Quote:

When we quote a passage, we do so in order to analyze how a specific effect works in the text. If there is no clear effect that we wish to discuss, we may want to simply paraphrase the key incidents or details of a passage so as to avoid slowing down our own writing with the words of someone else.

We need to be careful when we paraphrase, though. We have to create a sentence that uses a different sentence structure and language. If our paraphrase contains elements that are a word-for-word match to the source text or so close that it is difficult to tell the difference, we could be charged with plagiarism because it looks like we are trying to steal the words or ideas of someone else. In the case of word-for-word paraphrasing, rewrite it or turn it into a direct quote. In the case of a near quote, give a citation for the sentence as if it was a direct quote, just to be safe.

Using Signal Phrases:

One common error a lot of people make when they include a quote is that they tend to put the quote in a sentence by itself. Unfortunately, we cannot do this because when we do, we are giving the quote without a specific analytical context. We need to use what Diana Hacker calls a signal phrase to introduce the quote and give our readers a context for the quote that explains why we are taking the time to include it in our paper.

Take, for example, this section from a paper on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself:

We can see Douglass' marriage as an assertion of his ownership of himself. "What Douglass's certificate of marriage, which is transcribed in full in chapter 11, signifies is that the black man has repossessed himself" (Baker 170).

In this example, the quote from an essay by Houston A. Baker, Jr. thrusts itself into the flow of the paper, disturbing readers because there is no warning that the quote is coming. Yet, with a signal phrase, we can make the use of the quote seem more natural to readers:

We can see Douglass' marriage as an assertion of his ownership of himself, as Houston A. Baker, Jr. argues in his essay "The Economic of Douglass's Narrative": "What Douglass's certificate of marriage, which is transcribed in full in chapter 11, signifies is that the black man has repossessed himself" (170).

By including a reference to Baker and his essay in the sentence before giving the quote, we let the reader know that we are using someone's opinion to support our own, giving the quote a context that the reader finds relevant to our overall point.

According to the St. Martin's Guide, there are three main ways to set up a signalling phrase:

1. With a complete sentence followed by a colon.

The effects of Auld's prohibition against teaching Douglass to read were quite profound for Douglass: "It was a new and special revelation" (29).

2. With an incomplete sentence, followed by a comma.

Douglass argues that Auld's prohibition against literacy for him was a profound experience, saying, "It was a new and special revelation" (29).

3. With a statement that ends in that.

The importance of Auld's prohibition to Douglass is clear when he states that "It was a new and special revelation" (29).

A fourth option exists:

4. The Blended Sentence that integrates the quote into your own sentence by substituting quoted noun, verb, adjective, or adverbial phrases into your own sentence:

By Calling Auld's prhibition "a new and special revelation"(29), Douglass emphasizes its impact on his future destiny.

You can, however, build your own signal phrases by mixing these three basic styles with verbs that describe your source's attitude towards the subject of the quote. Here is a list of such verbs, as well as other phrases you can use:

points out 

In _____'s words 

According to ____'s (notes, study, narrative, novel, etc.) 

Using the Source's Name

Generally, the first time we use a source in a paper, whether it be through a paraphrase or a quote, it's a good idea to use the author(s) full name(s) and the title of the source we are using in the actual sentence so that readers feel that we have introduced the source to them. After we have introduced the source, it's perfectly acceptable to refer to the author by his or her last name or even to leave the name out of the body of our text and simply include it in the citation.

First use:

In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, Frederick Douglass argues that "Slavery proved as injurious [to slave holders] as it did to me" (31).

Second use:

Douglass earlier argues that slavery was "a fatal poison of irresponsible power" to slave holders (29).

Third use:

The use of the word "hypocrites!" suggests that even the religious faith of the slave holders was tainted by their ownership of other humans (Douglass 77).

When we do refer to authors by name, we should omit words such as "Mr.," "Mrs.," "Ms.," and especially "Miss." These words aren't necessary and seem condescending in certain cases.

Punctuating Quotes

Punctuating quotes can be frustrating because we often get confused about where to put punctuation. The following chart offers a straightforward view on how to punctuate the end of a quote:
Periods & Commas They always go inside the quotation marks even if there is no period or comma at the end of the quoted material in the original text. 

Exception: If there is a parenthetical citation immediately after the quote, the period or comma goes after the parenthetical citation.

Question Marks 

Exclamation Points
If the original quote ends with an exclamation mark or a question mark, we must include it inside the quotation marks. 

Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

When Douglass asks, "Will not a righteous God visit for these things?" he raises the question of doubt about the future salvation of the "Christian" slaveholders.

Notice that we don't put a comma after the question mark, even though normally we would if there was not a question mark. We omit the comma to avoid double punctuation. 

If we want to use a quoted statement in a question or exclamation we create, then the question mark or the exclamation mark goes outside the quotation marks.

The grave is at the door. (FD 38) 

How can we take Douglass seriously when he indulges in excessively romanticized language such as "The grave is at the door"?

Colons & 
Colons and semi-colons always go outside the quotation, even if the original quoted material ends with either form of punctuation.

Quotes within Quotes

One of the messiest types of quotes to punctuate is a quote within a quote. Sometimes we want to use quoted dialogue or a quote that includes a word set off by quotation marks. To mark a quotation within the text we want to quote in our own paper, we need to enclose them in single quotation marks ('. . .'):

I got hold of a book entitled "The Columbian Orator." (FD 32)


Because Douglass "got hold of a book entitled 'The Columbian Orator,'" he was able to learn how to read and broaden his mind.

Notice that the comma at the end of the quote goes inside not only the double quote but the single quote mark as well.

Block Quotes

One problem that occurs when we are working with longer quotes is that our paragraphs grow to be huge on the page. In order to give the reader a visual break, we use block quotes to physically separate the quote from the rest of our text.  Current MLA style states that prose text over four lines should be put in a block quote (poetry is handled differently, as we discuss below).

Once upon a time, teachers taught their students that visually a block quote needed be single- spaced and indented five spaces from the right and left margin. Nowadays, though, the MLA wants us to DOUBLE-SPACE the block quote and indent FIVE spaces (or half an inch) from the LEFT margin, as is shown in the following example:

Block quote of prose

Notice how the text is indented ten spaces from the left margin (an effect you can get in most word processors by typing the text, highlighting it, and then clicking on FORMAT--> PARAGRAPH-->INDENT two times) and that it is double-spaced.

Notice too that the block quote is technically part of the preceding sentence because of the use of a colon at the end of the introductory statement.  We also do not indent the text after the end of the block quote; we are still in the same paragraph. Be aware that the parenthetical citation goes outside the final period. Finally, note that we do not use quotation marks in a block quote; the indentation tells readers that it is a quote.

Special Issues with Poetry

Poems (and song lyrics, for that matter) are often the most difficult type of texts to quote because part of the impact of poetry lies in the visual breaks between lines. To try to capture this visual aspect, there are three special rules we use when we quote poems:

1. In poetic quotes less than four lines, we put a slash (/) between the lines to mark the line break:

In "The Poem," when William Carlos Williams writes, "It's all in/the sound" (1-2), he is arguing for the lyrical quality of words.

2. In poetic quotes four or more lines long, we need to block quote them by indenting ten spaces from the left. Unlike a prose block quote, however, we use a line of text for each line of the poem. Also, we double space the quote, even if the poem is not double-spaced. Quotation marks are not used. Finally, The parenthetical citation goes at the end of the last quoted line.

3. Instead of page numbers, we use line numbers from the poem to identify the quote.

Cutting Text out of Quotes Using Ellipses

Sometimes we need to cut words, phrases, sentences, or even whole paragraphs or pages out of a quotation in order to present to the reader a concise quotation that illustrates the issue we want to discuss. We can make such cuts using an ellipse, which is made from three periods, with a space before and after each period (like this: " . . . ").

Cutting unnecessary words can be a great way to focus our point and conserve space, but be warned: if we cut too many words and change the overall tone or meaning of a quote, we will be guilty of misquoting our source. In particular, we cannot omit key words like "no," "not," and any other negative word in an effort to make a source more agreeable with our point. Getting caught omitting such words with our handy ellipse at best is embarrassing, and at worst, grounds for plagiarism.

As an example of how this might work, let's look at the following quote from page 184 of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein:

Think not, Walton, that in the last moments of my existence I feel that burning hatred and ardent desire of revenge I once expressed; but I feel myself justified in desiring the death of my adversary.

Here we have the words of Victor Frankenstein to the narrator, Walton, towards the end of the novel. The entire quote is quite powerful and could be used as is without any alteration. We could, however, decide to make alterations to either accommodate an introductory quote or to streamline the quote for either effect or space:

In what appears to be his dying breath, Frankenstein begs Walton to, "Think not . . . that in the last moments of my existence I feel that burning hatred and ardent desire of revenge . . . but I feel myself justified in desiring the death of my adversary."

Here we cut out the reference to Walton since we used his name in the signal phrase we attached to the sentence. We also cut out the reference to "I once expressed" in order to get to the point more quickly. We could not, however, get away with removing the "not" from the sentence because that would change Frankenstein's words into a command to think that he is in fact full of hatred and revenge.

In larger passages, if we wanted to cut out the end of a sentence or even several sentences, we can do so, but we need to add another period to the ellipse, bringing the total number of periods in it to four (like this: " . . . . "). The fourth period indicates that one or more sentence endings have been omitted. In theory, the number of sentences omitted could be limitless, but in practical terms, it's a good idea not to cut out more than a couple of sentences because beyond that, it is extremely unlikely that you can cut out that much text without creating a false impression about the quote's original context. Consider a longer version of the previous passage from Frankenstein:

Think not, Walton, that in the last moments of my existence I feel that burning hatred and ardent desire of revenge I once expressed; but I feel myself justified in desiring the death of my adversary. During the last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was still another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery.

If we wanted to, we could cut out a sentence or two, like this:

On his apparent death bed, Frankenstein seeks to excuse his wish to see his creation die, saying,

By cutting out the "examination" sentence and the end of the "paramount" sentence, we show the reader only the key ideas from the text we want to discuss. If we had included the missing segments, the reader might wonder if we have any point to make at all or if we were going to quote the whole book.

One final note on ellipses: we do not need to put an ellipse at the beginning or end of a quote if we do not start the quote at the beginning of the sentence and end it at the close of the sentence. Thus, if we want to quote the phrase "beings of my own species had greater claims," we do not have to include an ellipse before or after the quote:

My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery.

By arguing that ". . . beings of my own species had greater claims . . ." (184), Frankenstein in essence displays a racist attitude.

By arguing that "beings of my own species had greater claims" (184), Frankenstein in essence displays a racist attitude.

Adding Text to Quotes

Generally, adding text to quotes is forbidden. After all, if we could freely add text to a quote, we could make a quote say anything we wanted. There are times, however, when it is acceptable to add a word or phrase to a quote, and when we do, we enclose the added material in brackets (like these: [ ]).

When we do add material to quotes, we do it to clarify references that do not make sense because we do not have the entire text in front of us or to make the quote fit into the grammatical structure of our sentence.

Example 1:

He was told he was at the barn. (FD 59)

Douglass' matter-of-fact reporting, such as in statements like, "He [Hamilton] was told he [William Freeland] was at the barn" (59) makes the Narrative easy to follow.

Because our quote doesn't include the preceding sentences that give us the names each "he" refers to, we need to add them to our quotation.

Example 2:

Mr. Hopkins could always find some excuse for whipping a slave. (FD 53)

Because Mr. Hopkins was "always [finding] some excuse for whipping a slave" (53), he epitomized the hypocrisy of slaveholding clergy.

The grammar of the original sentence did not allow for the sentence structure of our sentence, so we modified the verb form from the original sentence in our quote. Generally, when we modify a word in a quote, we simply change the form of the word rather than picking a whole new word.

Adding Italics to a Quote for Emphasis

Sometimes when we use a quote, we want to draw attention to words or phrases to emphasize a particular feature of the writing. To do so, we use italics to make the key word or phrase stand out from the rest of the quote. If we choose to add italics, though, we have to acknowledge that we modified the quote, so we add a parenthetical citation containing the words "emphasis added" to the end of the sentence:

It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived in me a sense of my own manhood. (FD 50).

The fact that the fight with Covey renewed Douglass' "sense of . . . manhood" suggests that more than just his sense of humanity was at stake (50, emphasis added): his masculine identity was also at risk because of slavery.

Note that in this example, the "emphasis added" is included in the same parenthetical citation as the page citation. This saves space and makes our paper flow better.

Dealing with Errors in the Original Quote

One of the touchiest issues to deal with in quoting a source is how to handle errors made by the original writer. Because we have to stay true to the quote as it appears in the source text, we must include the error in our quotation. Unfortunately, our readers may be unaware that the error was the original author's and assume that the error is ours, lowering our credibility. To avoid this quandary, we can simply add the bracketed phrase "[sic]" to indicate that the error was in the source text:

The elefant was pretty cool.

By noting that the "elefant [sic] was pretty cool," the boy took his first step towards a promising career as a field biologist.

Be aware that sometimes sic can be used as a not-so-subtle barb against the reliability of a source, so use it cautiously and recheck the tone created by its use..

Sources Used in the Preparation of this Page

Axelrod, Rise B. and Charles R. Cooper. The St. Martin's Guide to Writing. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1994. Print.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. "The Economics of Douglass's Narrative." Douglass, 166-171.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845). Ed. L. Andrews and William S. McFeely. New York: Norton, 1997. Print.

Hacker, Diana. A Pocket Style Manual. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 1997. Print.

Nadell, Judith, Linda McMeniman, and John Langan. The MacMillan Writer: Rhetoric, Reader, Handbook. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Print..

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1817. New York: Collier, 1961. Print.

Williams, William Carlos. Selected Poems. Charles Tomlinson ed. New York: New Directions, 1985. Print.