On the Effective Use of Quoted Material
Effective quotations add immeasurably to your historical writing. Quotations are the evidence that prove your thesis, and they give your writing an air of immediacy and authenticity. A well-chosen quotation can put the reader in the shoes of your historical actors, making your account more compelling and readable. The examples that follow are taken from this excerpt from Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River by Alexander Ross:
When we reached the Walla Walla on the 30th of May, as already mentioned, we were at a loss to account for the unusual movement and stir among the Indians, who seemed to be assembling from all quarters in great haste. The mystery was, however, soon cleared up when Mr. Clarke joined us, and related the affair of the silver goblet at the Catatouch camp. What did Stuart and M'Kenzie say? What could any man say? The reckless deed had been committed, and Clarke's countenance fell when the general voice of disapprobation was raised against him. The Indians all along kept flying to and fro, whooping and yelling in wild commotion. At this time, Tummeatapan came riding up to our camp at full speed. “What have you done, my friends?” called out the old and agitated chief. “You have spilt blood on our lands!”
This is a wonderful passage, full of color and drama. How to incorporate some of that excitement into your own writing? It is easy if you know the rules.
- First of all, know when to use quotation marks. These should enclose any words that are not your own. Failing to put quotation marks around phrases or sentences written by someone else is a kind of theft known as plagiarism. Plagiarism is bad.
- Also, know where to put the quotation marks—at the end of the sentence, enclosing all punctuation, even if that punctuation is not part of the original quote.
- To be effective, the quoted material must be both colorful and relevant. Don't quote pedestrian passages, paraphrase instead.
- Always identify who is being quoted in the text of your paper, as well as in a footnote. The first time someone is quoted, a short phrase should accompany their name to tell who they are: Alexander Ross, a clerk for the American Fur Company, described the “general voice of approbation” against Clarke's actions:
- An identifying phrase can be as short as one word: Astorian Alexander Ross described . .
- If the name of the person being quoted is irrelevant, you might omit it in favor of a generic identifier: One Astorian described the “general voice of approbation” . . .
- Vary the position of the identifier. Nothing is more boring than to introduce every quote with “Ross said . . .” or “Ross wrote . . .” Your identifier can go at the beginning, middle, or end of your quotation:
- Ross described the scene: “The Indians all along kept flying to and fro, whooping and yelling in wild commotion.”
- “The Indians all along kept flying to and fro,” Ross marveled, “whooping and yelling in wild commotion.”
- “The Indians all along kept flying to and fro, whooping and yelling in wild commotion,” Ross remembered.
- Vary the verb you use to identify the quote as well. Replace said and wrote with action verbs like exclaimed, declared, marveled, excoriated, demanded, and rhapsodized.
- Don't be afraid to manhandle your quotations, to use a part of a sentence rather than the whole to make your point economically:
- The Astorians noticed an “unusual movement and stir” among the Indians.
- The natives continued “whooping and yelling in wild commotion.”
- Clarke's actions met with “the general voice of disapprobation” of his fellow traders.
- Ellipses ( . . . ) should be used to indicate where something has been left out of a quotation:
- Ross reported “ an unusual movement and stir from the Indians . . . assembling from all quarters in great haste.”
- Or you can avoid ellipses by inserting a connecting phrase:
- Ross reported “an unusual movement and stir from the Indians” who were “assembling from all quarters in great haste.”
- Ellipses are necessary when something has been removed from the middle of a quotation. Overly fastidious writers also employ ellipses to show that what might be mistaken for a whole sentence is actually an excerpt. I am against it:
- Ross rued how “the reckless deed had been committed . . .”
- Remember that an ellipse consists of three periods with spaces before, between, and after them ( . . . ) not three periods in a row (...).
- You may alter the case of words in the beginning of your quotation to satisfy the rules of grammar, as has been done in the following:
- “Yelling in wild commotion,” the Indians drove away the Astorians.
- Ross disapproved of “the reckless deed” of M'Kenzie.
- Some writers try to evade learning these rules by using block quotes. Avoid block quotes, readers tend to skip over them and they disrupt the natural flow of your writing. Try to use just a few lines or phrases from the text you want to quote. If you absolutely must use a block quotation, remember: introduce it carefully; use a colon for the transition; indent the block on the left side only; don't use quotation marks; and follow it up with an explanatory phrase to reestablish your authorial voice. As I did at the top of this page.
- Quotes within quotes call for special treatment. Use double quotation marks for the first quotation and apostrophe marks for the interior quotation:
- Ross remembered Tummeatapan's outrage: “ ‘What have you done, my friends?’ called out the old and agitated chief.”
- Or better yet, peel off the inner quotation to stand by itself:
- “You have split blood on our lands!” cried Tummeatapan.
- And remember that a single sentence can contain quotes from a variety of sources:
- Though Alexander Ross described the Indians as “whooping and yelling in wild commotion,” another observer recalled the natives as “solemn and serious” when they met the party.
- Article titles appear in quotation marks, book titles in italics or underlined.
For further reference:
Strunk and White, A Guide to Style.
Turabian, A Manual For Writers.
Gibaldi and Achtert, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers.
Hodges and Whitten, Harbrace College Handbook.
- Larry Cebula, 2015