skip to Main Content

Using quotations effectively

James McConnachie

James McConnachie
Image credit: Julia Conway

Quotations bring life, colour and, crucially, other voices to a piece of writing. The mistake some writers make is to over-use quotations, as if to show off how much reading they have done. But quotations aren’t proof of due diligence. They should earn their place.

Significant words

The golden rule is that you should quote when the specific words matter. A good quotation refers the reader to another text, anchors your own discussion and spotlights a distinctive word, phrase or passage. For instance, you might write:

Hunt identifies ‘the emergence of a very particular exchange between ceremony and drama’.

The quotation puts you suddenly in Hunt’s head, hearing her voice, capturing her distinctive words — and focusing attention on her idea of ‘exchange’. A short quotation embedded in a sentence like this captures the essence of an idea or a certain scholar’s point of view, especially when the words or phrasing are significant.

Think about how you introduce your quote. Students commonly use verbs such as  argues/suggests/writes. But you can be more imaginative; above, I used a precise verb: identifies.

Placing quotations

The practical business of punctuating and placing quotations confuses some people. Here’s a rule of thumb: ‘Short quotations (of fewer than, say, 40 words — the exact number is sometimes stipulated, depending on the subject and institution) should be incorporated within a paragraph, using quotation marks.’ If you are only quoting a phrase, it is ‘best incorporated as part of a sentence’.

When you embed a quoted phrase, you should be able to read the whole sentence naturally, including what is being quoted. Sometimes, this means you have to add the introductory word ‘that’:

Juma states that ‘good quotations flow well’.

The main alternative is to use a comma:

As Juma suggests, ‘vary the ways you introduce quotes’.

Or shorter still:

For Juma, ultra-short quotations ‘can be highly effective’.

Make your point first

Beyond gold, there’s the diamond rule of quoting: quotations should serve your argument; they shouldn’t rule it. When planning an essay, dissertation or thesis, students commonly take key quotations from their research and use them to structure the points they are going to make: Hunt argues this; Khan argues that; the truth is somewhere in the middle. The danger is that you end up looking derivative — like someone subserviently arbitrating between other people’s ideas rather than someone masterfully making a case.

Instead, foreground the essential point, as you see it, then use the quotation to back up the point. Simply switching the order in this way, so the authority comes after the point you make, not before, can subtly put you in the driving seat. It’s not an absolute rule. But compare these two alternatives:

Khan contends that NATO was ‘troubled and indecisive, divided on the question of whether to expand or retrench — to be strategic or reactive’. As a result, it failed to take early action against Russia.

NATO failed to take early action against Russia. Khan contends that NATO  was ‘troubled and indecisive, divided on the question of whether to expand or retrench’. He perceptively identifies the organisation as being caught between two impulses, that of being ‘strategic or reactive’.

Considering the order of quotation and commentary allows you to enclose a quotation within your own thought — to master it. The second example amplifies that impression of mastery by including some paraphrasing and evaluation: ‘he perceptively identifies…’

Make the most of your quotation

The third and perhaps most important rule of quotations is to spend time discussing them. A bad quoter is like a cat bringing in a dead bird from the garden and dropping it at its owner’s feet as if to say, ‘Look how clever I am!’ A good quoter is like a dog with a bone: cracking it open to reveal the juicy marrow and sucking out all the goodness.

This is especially important when using long quotations (those of more than about 40 words) to provide a reference point around which your discussion revolves. Here’s an example, showing how you can introduce a long quotation in such a way that it foregrounds what you see in it, and then add a commentary that goes deeper into the point you are making:

Steven Pinker draws attention, from the outset, to language as a neurological activity:

As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world. For you and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision. (Pinker, 1994, p.15)[1]

Pinker is keen to stress that we have an extraordinary ability to use language. At root, however, his concern is not with wonder but with biology: with humans as a species with very particular brains, and with the natural world of which we are part. Language is extraordinary, in other words, but it is not magical. It is something we have evolved.

Fundamentally, what matters with quotations is how they serve your argument. Find pertinent quotations, place them for best effect and make them fit your purpose.


[1] Steven Pinker (1994) The Language Instinct (London: Penguin)


26 May 2022

Related articles

Paraphrasing: what it is and how to do it

Swapping the author’s words for your own, even with the help of the thesaurus, won’t save you from plagiarism. Indeed, although the thesaurus is a useful writing tool, it can also be a trap. In a PhD, dissertation or essay, successful paraphrasing is taking the nub of someone else’s argument and relating it to the point you are making.

Editing like a pro

Finessing an argument and spotting typos need different mindsets. Whether you’re writing an essay or a PhD, you need to be the editor as well as the author.

Developing a critical mindset

Developing a critical mindset involves drawing on qualities including confidence, motivation, curiosity and effort.

Back To Top