A Guide to Using Quotations in Essays

Quotations Add Credibility to a Persuasive Essay

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If you want to make an impact on your reader, you can draw on the potency of quotations. The effective use of quotations augments the power of your arguments and makes your essays more interesting.

But there is a need for caution! Are you convinced that the quotation you have chosen is helping your essay and not hurting it? Here are some factors to consider to ensure that you are doing the right thing.

What Is This Quotation Doing in This Essay?

Let us begin at the beginning. You have a chosen a quotation for your essay. But, why that specific quotation?

A good quotation should do one or more of the following:

  • Make an opening impact on the reader
  • Build credibility for your essay
  • Add humor
  • Make the essay more interesting
  • Close the essay with a point to ponder upon

If the quotation does not meet a few of these objectives, then it is of little value. Merely stuffing a quotation into your essay can do more harm than good.

Your Essay Is Your Mouthpiece

Should the quotation speak for the essay or should the essay speak for the quotation? Quotations should add impact to the essay and not steal the show. If your quotation has more punch than your essay, then something is seriously wrong. Your essay should be able to stand on its own legs; the quotation should merely make this stand stronger.

How Many Quotations Should You Use in Your Essay?

Using too many quotations is like having several people shouting on your behalf. This will drown out your voice. Refrain from overcrowding your essay with words of wisdom from famous people. You own the essay, so make sure that you are heard.

Don't Make It Look Like You Plagiarized

There are some rules and standards when using quotations in an essay. The most important one is that you should not give the impression of being the author of the quotation. That would amount to plagiarism. Here are a set of rules to clearly distinguish your writing from the quotation:

  • You may describe the quotation in your own words before using it. In this case, you should use a colon (:) to indicate the beginning of the quotation. Then begin the quotation with a quotation mark ("). After you have completed the quotation, close it with a quotation mark ("). Here is an example: Sir Winston Churchill made a witty remark on the attitude of a pessimist: "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
  • The sentence in which the quotation is embedded might not explicitly describe the quotation, but merely introduce it. In such a case, do away with the colon. Simply use the quotation marks. Here is an example: Sir Winston Churchill once said, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."
  • As far as possible, you should mention the author and the source of the quotation. For instance: In Shakespeare’s play "As You Like It," Touchstone says to Audrey in the Forest of Arden, "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." (Act V, Scene I).
  • Ensure that the source of your quotation is authentic. Also, verify the author of your quotation. You can do so by looking up the quotation on authoritative websites. For formal writing, do not rely on just one website.

Blend Quotations In

An essay can seem quite jarring if the quotation does not blend in. The quotation should naturally fit into your essay. No one is interested in reading quotation-stuffed essays.

Here are some good tips on blending in your quotations:

  • You can begin your essay with a quotation that sets off the basic idea of the essay. This can have a lasting impact on your reader. In the introductory paragraph of your essay, you can comment on the quotation if you like. In any case, do ensure that the relevance of the quotation is communicated well.
  • Your choice of phrases and adjectives can significantly boost the impact of the quotation in your essay. Do not use monotonous phrases like: "George Washington once said...." If your essay is written for the appropriate context, consider using emphatic expressions like: "George Washington rocked the nation by saying...."

Using Long Quotations

It is usually better to have short and crisp quotations in your essay. Generally, long quotations must be used sparingly as they tend to weigh down the reader. However, there are times when your essay has more impact with a longer quotation.

If you have decided to use a long quotation, consider paraphrasing, as it usually works better. But, there is a downside to paraphrasing too. Instead of paraphrasing, if you use a direct quotation, you will avoid misrepresentation. The decision to use a long quotation is not trivial. It is your judgment call.

If you are convinced that a particular long quotation is more effective, be sure to format and punctuate it correctly. Long quotations should be set off as block quotations. The format of block quotations should follow the guidelines that you might have been provided. If there are no specific guidelines, you can follow the usual standard—if a quotation is more than three lines long, you set it off as a block quote. Blocking implies indenting it about half an inch on the left.

Usually, a brief introduction to a long quotation is warranted. In other cases, you might need to provide a complete analysis of the quotation. In this case, it is best to begin with the quotation and follow it with the analysis, rather than the other way around.

Using Cute Quotes or Poetry

Some students choose a cute quotation first and then try to plug it into their essay. As a consequence, such quotations usually drag the reader away from the essay.

Quoting a verse from a poem, however, can add a lot of charm to your essay. I have come across writing that acquires a romantic edge merely by including a poetic quotation. If you are quoting from poetry, keep in mind that a small extract of a poem, say about two lines long, requires the use of slash marks (/) to indicate line breaks. Here is an example:

Charles Lamb has aptly described a child as "A child's a plaything for an hour;/ Its pretty tricks we try / For that or for a longer space; / Then tire, and lay it by." (1-4)

If you use a single line extract of a poem, punctuate it like any other short quotation without the slashes. Quotation marks are required at the beginning and at the end of the extract. However, if your quotation is more than three lines of poetry, I would suggest that you treat it like you would have treated a long quotation from prose. In this case, you should use the block quote format.

Does Your Reader Understand the Quotation?

Perhaps the most important question you must ask yourself when using a quotation is: "Do readers understand the quotation and its relevance to my essay?"

If the reader is re-reading a quotation, just to understand it, then you are in trouble. So when you choose a quotation for your essay, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this too convoluted for my reader?
  • Does this match the tastes of my audience?
  • Is the grammar and vocabulary in this quotation understandable?