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Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Quotations

A quotation is an exact reproduction of another speaker's or writer’s words. A quotation is different from a paraphrase, which is a restatement of someone else’s ideas entirely in your own words. Quotation and paraphrase, along with summary (which is a brief restatement of the main points of a longer work), are three ways of incorporating information from other sources into your own writing.

The Uses of Quotation

In most writing, you should use quotations for one or more of the following specific purposes:

Use quotation to reproduce distinctive, admirable, or felicitous phrasing--that is, when a paraphrase would be an inadequate representation.

Use quotation when your source uses words in a specialized or unorthodox way.

Use quotation when the speaker or writer is an expert on the subject or an otherwise famous person whose specific words might be newsworthy, of general interest, or add credibility to your paper.

Use quotation to reproduce important statements of information, opinion, or policy.

Use quotation to reproduce exactly a passage that you are explaining or interpreting.

The ultimate test of whether a quotation is necessary or not is this question: does it help support your thesis?

The Mechanics of Quotation

Any handbook used in Rhetoric or English courses will give you an acceptable format for incorporating quotations into your writing and punctuating them correctly. The MLA and APA handbooks provide guidance as well.

Punctuating quotations is simple, but the rules change slightly, depending on whether the quotation is documented or not. All of your quotations should be documented (usually by just a line or page number in parentheses), but it's important for you to know how documentation affects punctuation, so all the rules are given below.

Punctuating Quotations without Documentation

Periods and commas, whether or not they are part of the quoted material, always go inside the closing quotation marks:

Colons and semicolons at the end of independent clauses which end with a quotation go outside the closing quotation marks:

Question marks and exclamation points go inside or outside the closing quotation marks, depending on whether they are part of your sentence or the quoted sentence:

An ellipsis (three spaced periods) goes in the middle of a quotation or at the end--never at the beginning. To indicate words omitted from inside a quotation, use three spaced periods:

If the quotation goes on where your sentence ends, you can mark the missing material with 4 spaced periods, the first following the last word of the quotation with no space:

Verse (i.e., poetry) quotations of 3 lines or fewer should be incorporated directly into your paragraph, with a slash marking the division between lines:

Prose quotations that are longer than 4 lines or verse quotations of more than 3 lines should be set off in block format. The text remains double-spaced, with no extra lines before or after the quotation. The left margin is indented one inch and the right margin remains the same. Poetry quoted in this format should have the same line divisions that you see in your book. Block quotations are commonly introduced by a clause ending with a colon. The block format itself takes the place of quotation marks.

Punctuating Quotations with MLA Documentation

Once the reader knows which edition of a text you are using, the only information necessary to document a quotation is a line or page number; the format varies slightly depending on the kind of work you are quoting:

For poems whose lines are numbered consecutively, from beginning to end, just use line numbers:

For plays whose lines are numbered from the beginning of each scene, indicate act, scene, and line number:

Give page numbers for plays without line numbers and for prose works:

Note too that since the parenthetical documentation must be considered part of the sentence containing the quoted material to which it refers, it must come after quotation marks but before terminal punctuation (commas, periods, and such at the end of clauses). Thus:

The exception to this general rule is for block quotations the parentheses come after the final period of the quotation, with no additional punctuation:

The Stylistics of Quotation

Besides mechanical correctness, you should strive for two other goals in your use of quotations: efficiency and grace.

As a rule, introduce quotations with a specific reference to their context--either events in the story, or ideas in the paragraph. Never introduce a quotation with just a line or page number:

Quote only as much of the text as is necessary to make your point. Don't quote several lines to establish the context of a single important line. Don't quote big chunks of the text to make your paper look long.

Select your quotations and build your sentences around them so that the whole is a grammatically correct unit. Don't quote complete sentences inside your own sentences.

You can edit quotations to clarify them, or to make them fit the structure of your sentences, so long as you do not misrepresent the context of the quotation.