Research Paper Basics
Quotations in Research Papers
Before you insert a direct quotation—of any length whatsoever—ask yourself why you are quoting rather than summarizing or paraphrasing. Is it because you do not want to do the work of figuring out what the source really said? Is it because your paper is running short and you want to pad it out? Is it because someone somewhere taught you that a research paper is nothing more than an assortment of quotations?
Your main workhorse should be the indirect quotation, not the direct quotation.
Ta-Nehisi Coats, writing in the Atlantic, claims that unrestrained violence by police is a large part of the problem in our cities (108).
Often just a few words will really drive your point home:
Years later, Coates’ words still ring true: “If citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work” (108).
Quotations should support your ideas but not substitute for your ideas. A string of quotations does not equal a research paper; you must do the critical thinking and make a point of your own.
Here are some criteria for choosing to use a direct quotation:
- The quotation is evidence for your own assertion.
- The quotation has a scholarly voice that adds authority to your passage.
- The quotation adds color or feeling to the essay that would be lost through paraphrasing.
Strategies for direct quotations
- Before you decide to use a long quotation, ask yourself if you really need the whole thing. Will it appear merely as filler?
- Remember the rule from adventure movies: “Get in as late as possible; get out as early as possible.” (For example, in Lord of the Rings, we don’t watch hours of hobbits farming and raising cattle—just enough to set the scene, then the we’re into the real adventure.) You don’t want to distract, confuse, or bore your reader. If five words in the middle of a passage are the really important part, don’t give us forty on the way in and forty more on the way out. We will never figure out what you want us to look at.
- Make sure the reader knows who the author of the quotation is. If the person is recognizable (either by fame or through your text) give a name. Otherwise, an identifying “tag” is useful: “one expert said,” “as one reporter put it,” etc. Do not rely only on your Works Cited page to identify the quotation.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in the Atlantic, says that in difficult confrontations between the police and the community, “Legitimacy is ultimately what’s at stake here” (108).
- Coates quotes Janet Cooksey, whose 19-year-old son was killed by police in Chicago: “The police are supposed to serve and protect us and yet they take our lives” (107).
- If you break a quotation by “he said” or “she claimed” or some other phrase, make sure that the break comes at a logical point in the quotation. Think of the rhythm of the sentence, of natural pauses, and of sense.
- Make quotations work for you. If all the quotations were lifted from your text, your reader should still have a clear sense of what you are saying.
- If you like to use “dropped quotes” to do the work of exposition and take over your role as a writer, your paper won’t make sense without the quotations. This is a good diagnostic hint—writing is not simply a matter of gluing other people’s words together.
- Any use of quotations (or of summaries or paraphrases) consists of three parts: you must introduce the quotation, you then include the quotation, and then you comment on the quotation. This is sometimes called the Quotation Sandwich.
- Coates, who was born in West Baltimore and grew up in Harlem, was no stranger to violent youth, and he comments that “mediating violence between young people is part of being an adult.” In discussing how his father was able to deal with a frightening teenager, Coates implies that the police have not yet learned how to be adults (107).
- Never let a quotation have the last word in either a paragraph or in your essay.
Quotation Strategies that Don’t Work Too Well
The epigraph. This is a pithy quotation at the top of the paper that somehow shows the theme. It’s a hackneyed strategy, and while there’s nothing really wrong with it, most teachers consider it filler. If your epigraph doesn’t really relate to your theme, it’s just a waste. Post the brilliant but off-topic quote on Facebook instead.
The translation paper. This strategy consists of a long quotation plus the student’s attempt to show what the author was “trying to say.” One paragraph like this in a paper comes off as annoying and arrogant (both because the writer assumes the original source did a poor job of communicating and because the writer assumes the reader cannot understand ordinary text). If the whole paper is built this way, quotation plus translation, paragraph after paragraph, you can expect a very poor grade because there’s no real thinking involved and you usually have not followed the assignment. If your “translation” is actually wrong, your grade will be disastrous.
The endorsement paper. If you write, “Einstein formulated the relationship between mass and energy as E=mc² and I approve,” you have only demonstrated that you don’t have anything to say. Scholars do not need your approval and the teacher who assigned the essay is not looking for advice on which authors to include in the course next time around. Don’t bother telling us that you liked the source.
Trigger phrases: When you type these (and phrases like them) into a paper, both you and the teacher know that you are about to take flight into a discussion of your own emotions, not the subject matter: “I think that,” “To me this means,” “The author was trying to say,” etc. Do not use a quotation as an excuse to chatter about how you feel about the subject; use it to back up a point you are making.
- Summaries and paraphrases are not in the original language of the source, so they are not direct quotations. Learn the difference between direct and indirect quotations. They are punctuated differently.
- Shorter direct quotations (four lines or less) are enclosed in quotation marks and are part of the text. Periods and commas go inside of the quotation marks; semi-colons and colons go outside. The end punctuation of the quoted material is dropped in favor of the punctuation that you need for grammatical correctness.
- Academic quotations often begin with that. It is not a “speaking verb” so it is not followed by a comma.
- Coates points out that “It will not do to note that 99 percent of the time the police mediate conflicts without killing people” (108).
- If you are ending a sentence with a short MLA quotation, the sequence is final words + quotation mark + citation + period: … mediate conflicts without killing people” (108).
- Longer quotations (more than four lines typed) require Block Format.
- Use block quotations sparingly. Unless the material is very interesting, this practice can easily bore the reader. Also, excessive use suggests that you are primarily relying on other people’s words to fill out your paper rather than using your own.
- An example of block quotations is in Writer’s Reference §MLA-3b
- A longer block quotation (four or more lines typed) gets indented, so it does not need quotation marks. In this case, the citation goes outside the final punctuation:
- Sometimes the young people are involved in scary behavior—like threatening people with metal objects. And yet the notion that it is permissible, wise, moral, or advisable to kill such a person as a method of de-escalation, to kill because one was afraid, did not really exist among parents in my community. (107)
- When your source is quoting someone else, the embedded quotation gets single quotation marks:
- One huge issue is the thinking process of the police: “Cooksey struggled to understand the mentality of people she pays to keep her community safe: ‘What happened to Tasers? Seven times my son was shot’” (107).
- Omitting information in a quotation
- An ellipsis (three dots that look like this …) indicates that you are leaving something out of the quotation. Use square brackets around your ellipsis. […] This clarifies that you have added the ellipsis; it was not originally in the text.
- An ellipsis must be followed by proper punctuation. That might mean four dots, one of which is the sentence’s period.
- We assume that your source had material before and after the part you are quoting, so you don’t need to begin or end your quotation with an ellipsis. Use it for material you left out of the middle of the quotation.
- Ethical writing demands that you do not distort the meaning of the original with your omissions. Yes, the Bible says, “There is no God” (Psalm 14), but the full quotation is “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
- Make sure you combine the quotation with your sentence so it reads smoothly and is grammatically correct.
- INCORRECT Run-on sentence:
The basic understanding of our government is at stake, “A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule” (109).
- CORRECT Grammatically correct sentence:
The basic understanding of our government is at stake, because “A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule” (109).
A “dropped quotation” just falls from the sky into the paper. There’s no introduction telling who said it or why it is interesting or important, and there’s no discussion afterward showing how it supports the point of the paper. Often, dropped quotations simply substitute for the student’s own writing. Here is an example:
For some people in the world it takes a long time for them to notice that they need help and most screw their lives up in the whole process. “Many people feel the compulsion to spend so much time computing that it causes problems with their health, finance, and relationships” (Smith 123). Some of the questions people wonder the answer to are: Who suffers from computer addictions? What does it mean to be addicted? Where can we find help?
Avoiding Dropped Quotations
- Remember why you are putting in a direct quotation—it’s to add an authoritative voice to support your claim, not to just move the paper forward.
- As the writer of a research paper, your job description is explainer. Don’t assume your readers can just “figure it out for themselves.” You have to tell them why you put that quotation in.
- Do not depend on quotation marks to do all the work. The text should give the reader a hint that you are moving from your words to the source’s and back again.
- The “Quotation Sandwich” is a great tool to avoid dropped quotes.
Use introductory words that will really work for you.
- The student favorite, states, is very heavy-duty; do not over-use it. Your text will get ponderous with an artificial self-importance. There are a lot of other lead-in words.
- Another student favorite, quotes, does not mean what you think it means. It does not mean “Here comes something said by the person I just named.” It means “Here comes something the person I just named found somewhere else and is reporting to us.”
- In the article, Coates quotes, “When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers” (108).
Coates is not quoting someone else; the words are his, so the word “quotes” is wrong—it also weakens his statement.
- Yet another student favorite, as told by, has the down-home feeling of someone who is about to spin a yarn. It does not lend much credibility to a research paper (mainly by implying that your source is not being truthful) and usually results in a very awkward sentence.
- As told by Coates, “a district attorney in Ohio declined to prosecute the two officers who drove up, and within two seconds of arriving killed the 12-year-old Tamir Rice” (108).
Students often use these awkward lead-ins because they cannot think of anything else to do. In 50 Essays, the section “Sentence Guides for Academic Writers” (pages xxxi-xli) gives an enormous variety of alternatives for presenting your views and integrating quotations.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Paranoid Style of American Policing.” 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology, edited by Samuel Cohen, 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020, pp. 106-09. Originally published in The Atlantic, 30 Dec. 2015.
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Revised 6/11/20 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.