How to Use Indirect Quotations in Writing for Complete Clarity

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A quotation mark.

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In writing, an "indirect quotation" is a paraphrase of someone else's words: It "reports" on what a person said without using the exact words of the speaker. It's also called "indirect discourse" and "indirect speech."

An indirect quotation (unlike a direct quotation) is not placed in quotation marks. For example: Dr. King said that he had a dream.

The combination of direct quotation and indirect quotation is called "mixed quotation." For example: King melodiously praised the "veterans of creative suffering," urging them to continue the struggle.

Examples and Observations

Note: In the following quoted examples, we would normally use quotation marks because we are giving you examples and observations of indirect quotes from newspapers and books that we are directly quoting. To avoid confusion in addressing the subject of indirect quotes and also situations where you would be shifting between direct and indirect quotes, we have decided to forgo the extra quotation marks.

It was Jean Shepherd, I believe, who said that after three weeks in chemistry he was six months behind the class.
(Baker, Russell. "The Cruelest Month." New York Times, Sept. 21, 1980.)

U.S. Navy Admiral William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command said he called Chinese counterparts to discuss North Korea's missile tests, for example, and got a written response that said, in essence, "Thanks, but no thanks."
(Scott, Alwyn. "U.S. May Slap China With Suit in Intellectual-Property Dispute." The Seattle Times, July 10, 2006.)

In his order yesterday, Judge Sand said, in effect, that if the city was willing to offer incentives to developers of luxury housing, commercial centers, shopping malls, and executive parks, it should also be assisting housing for minority group members.
(Feron, James. "Citing Bias Order, U.S. Curbs Yonkers on Aid to Builders." The New York Times, Nov. 20, 1987.)

Advantages of Indirect Quotations

Indirect discourse is an excellent way to say what someone said and avoid the matter of verbatim quoting altogether. It is hard to be uncomfortable with indirect discourse. If a quote is something like "I'll be there prepared for anything, at the first hint of dawn," and you think, for any reason, that it might not be in the verbatim zone, get rid of the quotation marks and state it in indirect discourse (improving the logic while you're at it).

She said she would be there at the first hint of dawn, prepared for anything.

(McPhee, John. "Elicitation." The New Yorker, April 7, 2014.)

Shifting From Direct to Indirect Quotations

An indirect quotation reports someone's words without quoting word for word: Annabelle said that she is a Virgo. A direct quotation presents the exact words of a speaker or writer, set off with quotation marks: Annabelle said, "I am a Virgo." Unannounced shifts from indirect to direct quotations are distracting and confusing, especially when the writer fails to insert the necessary quotation marks.

(Hacker, Diane. The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002.)

Mixed Quotation

There are many reasons why we might opt to mixed quote another rather than directly or indirectly quote him. We often mixed quote another because (i) the reported utterance is too long to directly quote, but the reporter wants to ensure accuracy on certain key passages, (ii) certain passages in the original utterance were particularly well put ..., (iii) perhaps the words used by the original speaker were (potentially) offensive to an audience and the speaker wants to distance himself from them by indicating that they are the words of the individual being reported and not his own ..., and (iv) the expressions being mixed quoted might be ungrammatical or a solecism and the speaker might be trying to indicate that he's not responsible . ...
(Johnson, Michael and Ernie Lepore. Misrepresenting Misrepresentation, Understanding Quotation, ed. by Elke Brendel, Jorg Meibauer, and Markus Steinbach, Walter de Gruyter, 2011.)

The Writer's Role

In indirect speech, the reporter is free to introduce information about the reported speech event from his point of view and on the basis of his knowledge about the world, as he does not purport to give the actual words that were uttered by the original speaker(s) or that his report is restricted to what was actually said. Indirect speech is the speech of the reporter, its pivot is in the speech situation of the report.
(Coulmas, Florian. Direct and Indirect Speech, Mouton de Gruyter, 1986.)