Quotations are effective in academic writing when used carefully and selectively. Although misquoting or quoting too much can confuse or overwhelm your audience, quoting relevant and unique words, phrases, sentences, lines, or passages can help you achieve your purpose.
The Modern Language Association (MLA) provides guidelines/rules for quoting:
- Quotes within quotes.
This article discusses rules for quoting both prose and quotes within quotes. It also addresses a few special issues, like what to do if there is a spelling error in a quote, as well as how to handle punctuation. Consult the MLA Handbook to review additional topics and learn more.
Writers must always accurately quote the source. If you decide to quote a source in order to support your thesis statement, reproduce the source word for word. Unless you use brackets or parentheses (see below), changes to the source’s words, spelling, capitalization, or punctuation cannot be made. Additionally, introducing the quote with a signal phrase helps you smoothly incorporate the quotation (“Quotations” 75).
The rules for quoting prose vary according to how much you quote. Adhere to the following guidelines.
Special Issues: Omissions in Passages
According to the MLA Handbook, if you must omit a word, phrase, or sentence from a quoted passage, mark the omission with ellipsis points (. . . ), or three spaced periods (80-81).
If you omit an entire sentence, use ellipses points, and retain rules for end punctuation (always place a period at the end of a declarative sentence). In other words, use four periods, with no space before the first or after the last. Follow this rule for a quotation with an ellipses at the end as well, except when a parenthetical citation follows the ellipses.
Original: “I know I have said this before and will say it again, but it bears repeating: if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. We can only read what is present in a novel, play, or film. If something informed the author’s creation of the text but the evidence is not present in the text, that’s a matter for scholars concerned with motives, not with readers wrestling with meaning” (80).
Quote with Omission: In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas Foster emphasizes the importance of focusing on textual evidence: “I know I have said this before and will say it again, but it bears repeating: if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. . . . If something informed the author’s creation of the text but the evidence is not
Explanation: Foster’s main point is that readers of literature should concern themselves with the evidence in the text. Pointing out that readers can only read what is actually present in a particular text is illustrative, but this assertion can be omitted without changing the meaning of the passage.
A Word of Caution: Never present a quote in a way that could cause a reader to misunderstand the original quote (80-81).
Additional Special Issues
Other Alterations of Quotes
There may be some occasions when you need to alter a quote in order to prevent the audience from becoming confused.
|Issue||Original Quote||Alteration||Example of Alteration||Explanation|
|Spelling or grammatical error||Lisa admitted, “Nothing can diminish my interest in Shakespear.”||(sic)||Lisa admitted, “Nothing can diminish my interest in Shakespear” (sic).||The final “e” in Shakespeare is missing, so the writer has included (sic) after the quote to inform the audience that the spelling error is present in the original source.|
|Necessary Comment or Explanation||Although some aspects of the play are puzzling, there is no doubt that Hamlet wishes to avenge his father’s murder. He feels morally bound to do so.||brackets||Although some aspects of the play are puzzling, there is no doubt that Hamlet wishes to avenge his father’s murder. He [Hamlet] feels morally bound to do so.||Without clarifying the antecedent of the subject of the second sentence (he/Hamlet), readers may assume the subject is the closest masculine noun (Hamlet’s father).|
When you formally introduce a quote, such as with a complete sentence, precede it with a colon (87).
In the book Subliminal, Leonard Mlodinow explains the role that technology has played in furthering our understanding of the unconscious: “The current revolution in thinking about the unconscious came about because, with modern instruments, we can watch as different structures and substructures in the brain generate feelings and emotions. We can measure the electrical output of individual neurons” (15).
When you informally introduce a quote, such as when you make the quote an integral part of the sentence structure, precede it with a comma or no punctuation (87).
As Harry Frankfurt cautions, “The fact that a person could not have avoided doing something is a sufficient condition of his having done it. But, as some of my examples show, this fact may play no role whatever in the explanation of why he did it” (8).
Additionally, the MLA Handbook advises to “use double quotation marks around quotations incorporated into the text and single quotation marks around quotations within those quotations” (87).
To further explain the principle of diminishing marginal utility of income, Watts quotes Abba Lerner, who argues that the principle ““can be derived from the assumption that consumers spend their income in a way that maximizes the satisfaction they can derive from the good obtained’” (Lerner qtd. in Watts 141).
If a quote ends with a question or an exclamation point, the original punctuation is retained.
“No!” she emphatically responded, for the third time.
Required commas and periods follow the citations, except when the quote is a block quote (88). All other punctuation marks—semicolons, colons, question marks, and exclamation points—go outside a closing quotation mark, except when they are part of the quoted material (89).
Do you agree with Watts’s view regarding the essential difference between persons and other creatures: that it is to be found in the “structure of a person’s will” (12)?
The question mark is not part of the quoted material, so it should be placed outside the closing quotation mark.
Quoting prose in MLA format can seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, the MLA has offered clear guidelines for doing so. Consult the MLA Handbook to learn more about quoting in MLA.
Foster, Thomas. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and EntertainingGuide to Reading Between the Lines. Revised Edition. Harper Perennial, 2014.
Frankfurt, Harry. The Importance of What We Care About. Cambridge UP, 1998.
Mlodinow, Leonard. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Vintage Books, 2012.
“Quotations.” The MLA Handbook. 8th edition. The Modern Language Association of America, 2016, pp. 75-91.
Smith, James Jr. The Writer’s Little Helper. Writer’s Digest Books, 2006.
Watts, Alan. The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. 1966. VintageBooks, 1989.