How to use direct quotes in essays

Are your high schoolers ready for college-level writing? Make sure they know how to use direct quotes in essays and research reports.

Are your high schoolers ready for college-level writing?

One test is whether they know how to use direct quotes in essays and term papers. I’m not talking about tossing one or two overused, ancient proverbs or a boring dictionary definition in the intro paragraph. I’m talking about the big “R” – research!

What’s So Important?

As elementary children, we learn to write summaries. We absorb information and spill it back on paper in our own words. In high school, we meet new expectations. Now we must study source texts and create our own unique opinion (a thesis statement). Every point in a thesis statement must be defended by evidence.

Consider a headline news article. A journalist may make strong assertions, such as:

The police department will take drastic measures to prevent future incidents.

We are much more likely to believe this statement if it is followed by a quote from someone with authority:

Police chief Jason Roberts says, “I will not allow anyone in my department to wear their uniform off duty until further notice.”

Now the writer has offered evidence.

High school and college essays require evidence. If your daughter is writing about Jane Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, she must include words from the author’s (or the character’s) own mouth. If your son is writing about Northern attitudes toward slavery during the Civil War, he should avoid generalizations by including quotes from different people of that era.

Comma or Colon?

The following sentences are punctuated correctly. Can your student guess why?

  • Elizabeth calmly replies, “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing.”
  • “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing,” Elizabeth replies.
  • Elizabeth Bennet holds her tongue about her awkward suitor: “Mr. Collins might never make the offer, and, till he did, it was useless to quarrel about him.”
  • Elizabeth wisely understands that her cousin “might never make the offer, and, till he did, it was useless to quarrel about him.”

In the first two examples, the quotation is set off by a comma. Grammar rules tell us to always use a comma after a verb such as said, asked, or replied when it appears just before a quote.

In the third example, the sentence would convey a complete thought even without the quotation. Rule of thumb: never use a colon unless there are at least seven words before the quotation.

In the fourth example, the quote needs no commas or colons to set it off because of the little word that. When you use that, you can start the quotation mid-sentence, without ellipses or a capital letter.

A Note about Tense

The Block Quote

A block quotation is set apart with a special indent and no quotation marks. Use the block-quotation format to quote several consecutive sentences – or one especially long and complex sentence. Rule of thumb: use a block quote when the quotation is five lines or longer.

In the blogosphere, block quotes often appear in political or religious commentaries. In high school English essays, block quotes are effectively used to write about drama and poetry. Block quotes are like dessert; they should be used carefully. Too many can give the impression that a writer is lazy, trying to fill the page with words that are not his own.

Consider this block quotation from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

Block Quote or Quotation Marks?

If ellipses were used to shorten the above sentence, it would work nicely with quotation marks: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood / Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs / Broken across it….”

Give Credit Where Credit’s Due

Plagiarism is a growing concern in colleges and universities across the nation. Prepare your high school student by teaching him to be above-board as a writer. If he uses someone else’s idea, he must quote their words or mention their name to avoid plagiarizing. If he references someone else’s book, article, or webpage, he must include that source in a “Bibliography” or “Works Cited” page.

Every teacher and professor may have slightly different guidelines, but MLA citation format is a good place to start. A good reference can be found here: MLA Citation Examples.

With thoughtful research, well-chosen quotations and careful citations, your student’s writing will be ready for the college campus… and beyond.

Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.wordpress.com.

Photo: Elliott Brown courtesy of Creative Commons
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