Definition and Examples of Direct Quotations

When and how should they be used?

I have a dream quotation
This direct quotation from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech is inscribed on the granite wall at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. Steve Cicero/Getty Images

A direct quotation is a report of the exact words of an author or speaker and is placed inside quotation marks in a written work. For example, Dr. King said, "I have a dream."

Comparing Types of Quotations

Direct quotations are commonly introduced by a signal phrase (also called a quotative frame), such as Dr. King said or Abigail Adams wrote, and are used in written and in audio or visual media, especially if an anchor or reporter is giving someone's exact words without having a recording of the person actually saying it.

For example, a newscaster would say, "Dr. King said, and I quote, 'I have a dream' unquote." 

By contrast, indirect quotations also may have signal phrases leading into them, but the words are not what the person said or wrote word for word, just a paraphrase or a summary of what the words were, such as, At the March on Washington, Dr. King spoke of the dreams that he had for the nation.

mixed quotation is an indirect quotation that includes a directly quoted expression (in many cases just a single word or brief phrase): ​King melodiously praised the "veterans of creative suffering," urging them to continue the struggle.

When you have a long direct quotation in a written work, such as more than 60 or 100 words or more than four or five lines, instead of using quotation marks around it, you may be told by your style guide or assignment parameters to set it off with indents on either side and to put the text in italics or make some other typographical change.

This is a block quotation. (See the long quote in the next section for an example, though this site's style is to retain quote marks, even around block quotes.)

When to Use Direct Quotes

When you're writing, use direct quotes sparingly, because the essay or article is supposed to be your original work.

Use them for emphasis, when the reader needs to see the exact words for analysis when they're evidence, or when the exact quote perfectly encapsulates the topic at hand more succinctly or better than you could.

Author Becky Reed Rosenberg discusses using direct quotes when writing in the sciences vs. the humanities.

"In the first place, the general convention in the sciences and social sciences is that we use direct quotations as little as possible. Whenever possible, paraphrase your source. The exception is when the source is so eloquent or so peculiar that you really need to share the original language with your readers. (In the humanities, direct quoting is more important—certainly where you are talking about a literary source. There the original language IS the object of study very often.)" ("Using Direct Quotation." Writing Center at the University of Washington, Bothell)

In news writing, don't be tempted to correct grammar or other errors when you're directly quoting your source—though you would want to comment in your text about factual errors the speaker made at the time of the statement. You can use ellipses to cut some things out of a direct quote, but even that should be done sparingly.

In news, accuracy and proper context are paramount, and you don't want to look like you're doctoring the source's words.

In essays and reports, anytime you use someone else's ideas in your work, either by direct or indirect quotations, that person needs either attribution or credit, or else you are committing plagiarism.