Writing Techniques Handbook    

Handling Quotations

(in Papers about Literature)

A quotation is an exact reproduction of another speaker's or writer’s words. A quotation is the opposite of a paraphrase, which is a restatement of someone else’s idea, entirely in your own words. Quotation and paraphrase, along with summary (which may contain both quotation and paraphrase), are three ways of incorporating information from other sources into your own writing.

The Uses of Quotation

In most writing, you should use quotations for these specific purposes:

1. Use quotation to reproduce distinctive, admirable, or felicitous phrasing--that is, when a paraphrase would be an inadequate representation. [In his Introduction to Lysistrata, Douglass Parker denies that the play is a "hoard of applied lubricity."]

2. Use quotation when your source uses words in a specialized or unorthodox way. [Both Calidorus and Pseudolus agree that Phoenicium's letter is "terrible," but they mean different things.]

3. Use quotation when the speaker or writer is an expert on the subject or an otherwise famous person whose specific words might be newsworthy or of general interest. [Samuel Pepys called Twelfth Night "one of the weakest plays that ever I saw on the stage."]

4. Use quotation to reproduce important statements of information, opinion, or policy. [According to the Code on Campus Affairs, "No absence from class is excused."]

5. Use quotation to reproduce exactly a passage that you are explaining or interpreting. [Corrigan refers to the world of comedy as a "protected realm."]

Any of these purposes can apply to writing papers about literature. The ultimate test of whether a quotation is necessary or not is this: does it help support your thesis?

The Mechanics of Quotation

Any handbook used in Rhetoric or English courses will give you an acceptable format for incorporating quotations into your writing and punctuating them correctly.

Punctuating quotations is simple, but the rules change slightly, depending on whether the quotation is documented or not. All of your quotations will be documented (usually by just a line or page number in parentheses), but it's important for you to know how documentation affects punctuation, so all the rules are given below.

Punctuating Quotations without Documentation

1. Periods and commas, whether or not they are part of the quoted material, always go inside the closing quotation marks:

"The comic mask," says Aristotle, "is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain."

2. Colons and semicolons at the end of independent clauses which end with a quotation go outside the closing quotation marks:

Pseudolus calls Phoenicium's letter "terrible": he means it is badly written.

3. Question marks and exclamation points go inside or outside the closing quotation marks, depending on whether they are part of your sentence or the quoted sentence:

Malvolio asks, "My masters, are you mad?"

Why does Olivia call Malvolio "poor fool"?

4. An ellipsis (three spaced periods) goes in the middle of a quotation or at the end--never at the beginning. To indicate words omitted from inside a quotation, use three spaced periods:

"Some are born great . . . and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em."

If the quotation goes on where your sentence ends, you can mark the missing material with 4 spaced periods, the first following the last word of the quotation with no space:

Cesario’s most impressive speech begins, "Make me a willow cabin at your gate. . . ."

5. Verse quotations of 3 lines or fewer should be incorporated directly into your paragraph, with a slash marking the division between lines:

Lysistrata ends with a religious invocation: "sing to honor her-- / Athene of the Bronze House! / Sing Athene!"

6. Prose quotations that would be longer than 4 lines if incorporated directly into your paragraph--or verse quotations of more than 3 lines--should be set off in block format. The text remains double-spaced, with no extra lines before or after the quotation. The left margin is indented one inch and the right margin remains the same. Poetry quoted in this format should have the same line divisions that you see in your book. Block quotations are commonly introduced by a clause ending with a colon. The block format itself takes the place of quotation marks.

Punctuating Quotations with MLA Documentation

Once the reader knows which edition of a text you are using, the only information necessary to document a quotation is a line or page number; the format varies slightly depending on the kind of work you are quoting:

1. For poems whose lines are numbered consecutively, from beginning to end, just use line numbers:

In "The Reeve’s Tale," the miller’s daughter has "eyen as greye as glas" (120).

2. For plays whose lines are numbered from the beginning of each scene, indicate act, scene, and line number:

Posing as Cesario, Viola tells Olivia, "I am not that I play" (1. 5. 187) .

3. Give page numbers for plays without line numbers and for prose works:

Aristotle defines comedy as "an imitation of characters of a lower type" (51).


Note too that since the parenthetical documentation must be considered part of the sentence containing the quoted material to which it refers, it must come after quotation marks but before terminal punctuation (commas, periods, and such at the end of clauses). Thus:

"My masters, are you mad?" --becomes-- "My masters, are you mad?" (2.3.87).

"Make me a willow cabin at your gate . . ." (1.5.273).

Although the women of Greece swear to "withhold all rights of access or entrance" (32), they soon find their oath difficult to keep.

The exception to this general rule is for block quotations: the parentheses come after the final period of the quotation, with no additional punctuation:

Lysistrata ends with a prayer to the patron goddess of Athens:

            Sing the greatest,

            sing the mightiest,

            sing the conqueror,

            sing to honor her--

    Athene of the Bronze House!

            Sing Athene! (113)


The Stylistics of Quotation

Besides mechanical correctness, you should strive for two other goals in your use of quotations: efficiency and grace.

1. As a rule, introduce quotations with a specific reference to their context--either events in the story, or ideas in the paragraph. Never introduce a quotation with just a line or page number:


On page 219, Pseudolus says he has "eyes like pumice stones."


When Calidorus asks Pseudolus why Phoenicium's letter doesn't make him weep, Pseudolus responds that he has "eyes like pumice stones" (219).

2. Quote only as much of the text as is necessary to make your point. Don't quote several lines to establish the context of a single important line. Don't quote big chunks of the text to make your paper look long.

3. Select your quotations and build your sentences around them so that the whole is a grammatically correct unit. Don 't quote complete sentences inside your own sentences.


Feste's statement that "Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere" (3.1.40-41) is an appropriate comment on the other characters in the play.


Feste's comment that foolishness, like sunlight, "shines everywhere" (3.1.41) could be taken as the theme of Twelfth Night.

4. You can edit quotations to clarify them, or to make them fit the structure of your sentences, so long as you do not misrepresent the context of the quotation.

You can leave words out, marked by an ellipsis.

You can insert words, enclosed in square brackets.

You can replace words with others, enclosed in square brackets.

Additional pages of interest:

 Writing Techniques Handbook home page
  Writers' Workshop home page

Language Arts and Social Sciences (LASS) Department, Shasta College

This page was last updated on Wednesday, January 09, 2002 03:16:57 PM.
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