Ways To Explain A Quote In An Essay

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Using Quotations Effectively

Robert Harris
Version Date: November 27, 2012
Original Date: February 13, 2001
(Reflects MLA Handbook [1999/2003] style)

Quoting effectively is important because the right quotation presented properly can add spice, interest, thought, effectivenes, support, and respect to your writing. Quoting ineffectively makes your writing look like an amateur attempt padded by random comments from strangers. Here, then, is some advice that will help you incorporate quotations into your writing in a way that will give both the sizzle you want.

1. Introduce your quotations. A quotation should never suddenly appear out of nowhere. Some kind of information about the quotation is needed. Name the author, give his or her credentials, name the source, give a summary. You won't do all of these each time, but you should usually name the author. For example:

2. Discuss your quotations. Do not quote someone and then leave the words hanging as if they were self explanatory. What does the quotation mean and how does it help establish the point you are making? What is your interpretation or opinion of it? Quotations are like examples: discuss them to show how they fit in with your thesis and with the ideas you are presenting. Remember: quotations support or illustrate your own points. They are not substitutes for your ideas and they do not stand by themselves.

It is often useful to apply some interpretive phrasing after a quotation, to show the reader that the you are explaining the quotation and that it supports your argument:

  • Here we see that
  • This statement shows
  • Clearly, then,
  • We can conclude from this that
  • This tells us that
  • From this we can understand that
  • Such a contrarian view must nevertheless be taken seriously because
  • If we are to understand from this comment that
3. Use some variety in introducing quotations.
A. Pick the quotation verb which seems in each case to fit your purpose most exactly. For example:

Note that the particular verb you choose helps orient your reader toward your opinion of the statement. "Jones says" is neutral; "Jones informs us" is positive, "Jones alleges" is somewhat negative. Other verbs to choose from include:

  • says
  • writes
  • observes
  • notes
  • remarks
  • adds
  • declares
  • informs us
  • alleges
  • claims
  • states
  • comments
  • thinks
  • affirms
  • asserts
  • explains
  • argues
B. Sometimes you might want to use a colon introduction. For example:

 Or Kumquat

  • is more enlightening:
  • prefers a different argument:
  • discerns this point:
  • distinguishes between the two:
  • reminds us of his youth:
  • believes we should talk less:
  • cannot admit that the plan failed:
  • feels that no further action is needed:
C. An introductory phrase may sometimes be best. For example:


4. Sometimes you might want to begin your quotation in the middle of the writer's sentence. For example, Joe's Text:

Your quotation:

 Or, Boz's Text:

Your quotation:

(Note: for embedded phrases like these, do not use ellipsis dots on either side. It is obvious from the fragmentary nature of the quoted phrase that the quoter has omitted words before and after the phrase.)

5. Sometimes leave out some words to condense the quotation. Mid-sentence ellipses use three spaced dots.  Example text:

Your quotation:

Ellipses at the end of a sentence use an end-of-sentence period and then three spaced dots. Example text:

6. Parenthetical material goes inside the punctuation mark. Example:

Compare punctuation without and with parenthetical material:

(Note that the period has moved from next to the last letter of the sentence to behind the right parenthesis mark.)

7. Standard MLA Citation Style is actually rather simple for most entries: The in-text citation is the author's last name followed by a page number:

See my article for more detail on MLA style.

At the end of your paper, you will have a Works Cited page, listing the work in standard MLA order. Basically, the order is:

Book
Lastname, Firstname. The Book Title. City: Publisher, Date.

Article
Last, First. "Article Title." Journal Name Volume (Year): Page-Page.

Web site
Last, First. "Article Title." Site Name. Article date. Organization Name. Date of access <URL in angle brackets>.

Example
Harris, Robert. "Using Quotations Effectively." VirtualSalt.com. 27 Nov. 2012. 4 July 2013 <http://www.virtualsalt.com/quotehlp.htm>.

Note: For Web articles, omit information not available, such as author, article date, site name, etc. Never make up page numbers for a Web site. Always include article title, date of access, and URL at the very minimum. See the link at the bottom of this page, "How to cite this page," for more information.



Using Quotations and References: An Example

Here is an example of the use of quotations and references (citations) to support points:

 At the beginning of many of the Holmes stories, Doyle takes care to capture the reader's interest by proclaiming that the story just getting under way is an especially noteworthy or remarkable one. At the beginning of "The Five Orange Pips," for example, Watson notes that this adventure is one of the "many which present strange and interesting features," because it is "so remarkable in its details and so startling in its results" (Doyle 100). There were many adventures in the year 1887, Watson continues, but "none of them present such singular features as the strange train of circumstances which I have now taken up my pen to describe" (101).

As if this weren't enough, John Openshaw, the man who brings the case to Holmes, describes his problem as "no ordinary one" (102), and adds that he doubts "whether . . .  you have ever listened to a more mysterious and inexplicable chain of events" than the ones he is about to relate (103).

 Indeed, this declaration of singularity is a common gambit Doyle uses at the beginning of many of the stories. "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb" was "so strange in its inception and so dramatic in its details" (191) that it deserves to be recorded, Watson says. "The Adventure of the Silver Blaze" is described as "this extraordinary case" (Castle edition 172), while "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" "presented more singular features" than any of the "seventy odd cases" that Watson has studied in the last eight years (Doyle 165).

 As Doyle grew more experienced, he evidently grew a bit more sophisticated, for the later stories often strive to capture interest by tantalizing the reader. For example, "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" opens with the assertion that we are about to read "a strange, though peculiarly terrible chain of events" (Castle edition 188). In the first paragraph of "The Adventure of the 'Gloria Scott' it is Holmes himself declaring the adventure to be an "extraordinary case" (223), commenting tantalizingly about a paper in his hand that "this is the message which struck Justice of the Peace Trevor dead with horror when he read it" (223). --and so on.

 Note that the technique used here is to cite frequently, though briefly, to build the quotations into the writer's own sentences, and to use whatever arrangement of the material best supports the writer's argument.

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com

Body paragraphs in academic essays contain evidence that supports debatable main ideas that appear in topic sentences, and responsible writers make sure to introduce, cite, and explain quotes and paraphrases used as evidence.

INTRODUCE: Introduce all your quotes using introductory phrases.  Here are some examples:

  • According to Michael Smith, “you should use the author’s first and last name when you cite that author for the first time in your paper” (1).
  • As Smith explains, “you can introduce your quotes with a number of different phrases” (1).
  • Smith suggests that “if the introduction to your quote isn’t a dependent clause, it doesn’t need to be followed by a comma” (1).
  • Smith observes the following in his article: “When you use a colon to introduce a quote, you need a complete sentence preceding the colon” (1).

CITE: Provide appropriate parenthetical citations for all quotes and paraphrases (but not summaries).  Check the appropriate style guide for guidelines, e.g. MLA, APA, and Chicago.  Here are some guidelines for MLA style citation:

  • If the author’s name appears in the introduction to the quote or in the paraphrase, it doesn’t have to appear in the parenthetical reference, as the citations above illustrate.
  • If the author’s name does not appear in the introduction to the quote, the name must appear in the parenthetical reference.  See the following example of a cited paraphrase:

Some professors at UM take points off of your final paper grade if you don’t cite paraphrased or quoted material correctly (Smith 1).

EXPLAIN: Make sure to explain your quotes.  Provide analysis that ties them back to your main idea / topic sentence.  In other words, comment on the evidence in order to incorporate it into the argument you’re making. 

Here’s an example of a whole academic body paragraph that illustrates ICE: introduction, citation, and explanation:

Despite their competence as readers and writers, these young teachers have just begun to understand and participate in the changing ecology of literacy described above, particularly in adopting a view that digital writing is worthy of attention in schools. Grabill and Hicks argue that “[u]sing ICTs (Information Communication Technologies) isn’t enough; critically understanding how these writing technologies enable new literacies and meaningful communication should also be a core curricular and pedagogical function of English education” (307). While our experience as teacher educators, especially in the context of Kristen’s course, shows us that adopting this perspective is difficult, we feel that there are compelling social reasons to do so.

(Sample paragraph taken from page 62 of Turner, Kristen Hawley, and Troy Hicks. “‘That’s not Writing’: Exploring the Intersection of Digital Writing, Community Literacy, and Social Justice.” Community Literacy Journal 6.1 (2011): 55-78. Print.)


Activity: With a partner, work to fix the introductions and citations in the paragraph below.

Don DeLillo characterizes the American National Identity as consumerism. The Gladneys are DeLillo’s depiction of the typical American consumerist family. “That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the [television] set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese.” (DeLillo 64) In this excerpt DeLillo ritualizes the process of a family night around the television. DeLillo does not simply state that this is a tradition passed down through culture, rather by using the word ‘rule’ he is invoking a moral imperative that elevates the event from a cultural phenomenon to a religious ritual. In another instance where consumerism is ritualized Jack is watching his daughter Steffie sleep when, “She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant. Toyota Celia (DeLillo 148).” This quotation shows that not only is consumerism an external ritual but it also permeates our unconscious to the point that we imitate commercials in our sleep.

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