Quick Tips for Using Quotes in Essays: Short Phrases

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An essential part of high-level academic writing in any field is properly citing and quoting your research. There are lots of great resources already out there on different citation methods and how to avoid plagiarism; today I want to talk about how to properly integrate quotes into your writing. This entry will focus specifically on quotes that short phrases and less-than-complete sentences and clauses. Longer selections require slightly different strategies; I’ll be covering them in later posts.

Writers, both native and non-native English speakers, seem to struggle with how to include short selections into their writing. Hopefully this post will demystify the process a little bit — it’s actually quite simple, once you get the hang of it.

By far, the most common problem I see is something like this:

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speed.” (Abrams, 2016)

Can you spot the problem here? What’s the grammatical misunderstanding the author has that’s led to the problem?

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Here’s the big secret: when you want to integrate part of a sentence from your source into your own writing, you need to make sure that your entire sentence still works grammatically. One little word, like the above “which,” can throw a monkey wrench into things and turn what you thought was a proper sentence into something else (here, it’s a non-restrictive clause). You’ve probably already figured out how to fix this little boo-boo:

Scientists on the project were excited that “some photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Sometimes, authors (correctly!) alter the original quote, but they fail to indicate that they have made alterations. This is a no-no; you should always let the reader know that you’ve made changes, even small ones, to the original material. A quick refresher on the two tools you need for this job:

  • ellipsis: used to indicate words or phrases omitted from the original quote, whether for brevity or for grammar; consists of three periods with  a space between each one. ( . . . )
  • square brackets: used to indicate characters, words, or phrases altered or added to the original quote for the sake of orthography, grammar, comprehension, or readability. ([])

For example, let’s say that the original quote from that Abrams paper was something like this:

Some photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds were of particular interest.

(I know it’s not the most elegant example. Sorry.)

To do things 100% by the book, our citation would have to look something like this:

Scientists on the project were excited that “[s]ome photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

Or like this, if you’re not a fan of the square brackets look:

Scientists on the project were excited that some “photon wave-particles . . . traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

There is an aesthetics argument for avoiding square brackets as much as possible, as they have a tendency to slow the reader down. Here, the sentence can be recast without them, but sometimes that’s not possible.

If you’re not comfortable with omitting text in this way, or if doing so somehow significantly changes the meaning of the original, then you need to reword your writing. Sometimes this is tricky; in my fictional example above, however, it’s pretty straightforward:

Scientists on the project were excited about some “photon wave-particles which traveled at faster-than-light speeds.” (Abrams, 2016)

There are usually two or three different ways to recast a sentence in this way. If you’re having trouble figuring out how, a colleague (or professional editor) can often have the distance and perspective needed to see how to proceed.

Mystery solved! Hopefully, anyway. If you have any questions about this, or would like me to look over your work to check for these kinds of errors, you can contact me on Twitter or with the form over there on the right.

Happy citing!

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