In academic writing, you’ll sometimes want to quote another person’s words directly. It’s important to learn when and how to use direct quotations in a way that both supports your ideas and respects the original source.
When to use direct quotations
In most cases, it’s best to summarize or paraphrase others’ work rather than quoting; using too many direct quotations obscures your voice. In certain instances, however, direct quotations are preferable.
- The language in a source is evocative, colorful, or particularly well-phrased.
Ex. Noam Chomsky said, “If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
- The source’s authority advances your argument.
Ex. Robots cannot entirely replace astronauts. As Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, has contended, “Robots just don’t make role models. If you want a nation to have space exploration ambitions, you’ve got to send humans.”
- The quotation is part of your thesis or provides evidence in favor of it (for example, in the analysis of a literary text.)
Ex. H. D.’s “red swan” is an uncanny, unnatural image that suggests impending violence as it “lifts red wings/and darker beak.”
- You are analyzing someone else’s opinion and a direct quotation best encapsulates it.
Ex. Margaret Thatcher’s stance on gender equality was conflicted. She once said, “I’m not a feminist,” but also infamously asserted, “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
How to present direct quotations in writing
Avoid direct quotations that “float” as their own separate sentences. Instead, integrate the quote into your sentences. Remember: you’re using the quotation to support your ideas, so you need to help readers see how and why it’s relevant to your point.
Ex. “Floating” quotation 1: Toni Morrison delivered the 2011 commencement speech at Rutgers University. “Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate all the characters who surface, or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones you can’t avoid by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The plot you choose may change or even elude you, but being your own story means you can control the theme.”
Ex. “Floating” quotation 2: Toni Morrison delivered the 2011 commencement speech at Rutgers University. She said “Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate all the characters who surface, or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones you can’t avoid by paying them close attention and doing them justice.
Ex. Quotation successfully integrated into the your own sentences: In 2011, Toni Morrison delivered the commencement speech at Rutgers University. The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist likened life to a literary “plot,” advising students, “Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate all the characters who surface, or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones you can’t avoid by paying them close attention and doing them justice.” She cautioned the graduates, “The plot you choose may change or even elude you,” but reassured them that “being your own story means you can control the theme.”
You can also introduce a quotation with a colon, especially if the quotation is an illustration or explanation of the sentence that precedes it.
Ex. According to the Census Bureau, our population is decreasing, and age is a factor: “nearly half of the U.S. population under the age of 30 does not plan to have children” (Ellis 56).
NOTE: the example above is written in MLA style. The in-text citation, which lists the author and page number, comes after the quotation, and the final punctuation mark for the sentence comes after that.
Longer direct quotations are typically written as a free-standing block of text and not set off with quotation marks. Check the guide for the citation style you’re using (MLA, APA, IEEE, etc.) to determine how to treat long quotations. However, avoid long quotations unless necessary; quote only what you need to make your point.
In addition to introducing a quotation, you may also need to provide a brief summation or explanation after it to help connect the ideas back to your line of reasoning.
Ex. Robots cannot entirely replace astronauts. As Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden
Planetarium, has contended, “Robots just don’t make role models. If you want a nation to have space
exploration ambitions, you’ve got to send humans.” Astronauts will always play a key role in getting the public to support the idea of a national space program.
Altering direct quotations to fit the text
You can change a quotation to fit into the text so it flows with your sentences, but make sure your changes don’t alter the original meaning of the quotation. Use an ellipsis (. . .) if you omit words and brackets ( [ ] ) if you’ve changed a word or phrase to make the quotation grammatically “fit” your sentence.
Ex. Original quotation: What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
Ex. Quotation successfully integrated into the writer’s own sentences: Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert A. Simon said of the impending information age that a danger might arise from “information … [that] consumes the attention of its recipients.” He argued too much information can “[create] a poverty of attention” and suggested that the excess forces us to ration our attention.
Remember to capitalize the first word of the quotation if it was originally a complete sentence, but do not capitalize the first word if the quoted material is only a segment of a sentence.
Attributions and citations
In many academic disciplines, you’ll need to attribute the quotation to the original author or speaker directly in your text. It’s usually best to use a neutral attributive verb (e.g., “stated” or “said”), except in rare circumstances when you want to indicate the author’s specific stance or an unusually vehement expression.
Ex. Conservationist Rachel Carson said, “It is not half so important to know as to feel.”
Ex. Taylor, a university freshman, complained, “My dorm room is like a prison cell!”
Among the many common neutral attributive verbs used in academic writing you'll find the following: add, admit, agree, ask, assert, argue, claim, conclude, contend, explain, grant, hypothesize, imply, insist, maintain, note, posit, proclaim, remark, suggest, and write. Don’t, however, use these words interchangeably; keep their specific meanings in mind. For instance, don’t say “He explained,” unless his utterance actually explains something.
You may also identify the speaker or the source of the quotation in order to give the reader some context and establish the credibility of the source.
Ex. Conservationist Rachel Carson said …
Ex. As Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, has contended …
Ex. According to the company’s 2013 annual report …
Remember: in academic writing, you need to document the source of your quotation with both an in-text citation and an entry in your list of sources. These citations are important because they give credit to the original author/speaker and allow other scholars to locate your source. Different citation styles (MLA, APA, Chicago, IEEE, etc.) have different standards for formatting quotations. Citation guides answer questions about proper placement of punctuation and page references; check with the relevant style guide and/or your instructor for specific requirements.