Using Quotes Well

Using Quotes Well

By Chris Cherry

So you’ve been assigned an essay to write, and you have to use quotes. However, using quotes is more than just taking a sentence from your source, sticking some quotation marks around it, and adding it to your essay. In order to use a quote effectively, you have to use it as evidence to support your own ideas.

There’s a good chance you’ve been taught the “Quotation Sandwich” method of using quotes. However, there’s also a good chance you’ve been taught it badly. Oftentimes, the Quotation Sandwich is characterized like this:

  1. Introduce the quote
  2. Reproduce the quote
  3. Explain the quote

This leads to students picking quotes that they think sound good, introducing them with something like “The author states,” reproducing the quote, and then restating it in their own words, like this:

In “Toward reformulating the diagnosis of schizophrenia”, Ming Tsuang writes, “in the United States, schizophrenia became the diagnosis of choice for psychotic conditions that lacked a clear ‘organic’ etiology.” He is saying that doctors were diagnosing schizophrenia when they didn’t know what else to call an illness.

While this technically fulfills the requirements of the Quotation Sandwich, it isn’t very compelling and doesn’t do much to help your essay. While restating the quote in your own words can be critical in literary analysis in order to make clear what you believe the meaning of the line to be, it’s much less important in science or history writing. Even in an English paper, restating the quote isn’t enough; in order for the quote to work as supporting evidence to a larger claim or main idea you will need to connect the quote back.

A better way to think of the Quotation Sandwich is like this:

  1. Introduce an idea or claim
  2. Introduce and reproduce the quote
  3. Explain why the quote backs up your idea or claim

This would look something like this:

Hamlet is a character defined by his own indecisiveness. This indecisiveness is exemplified by the most famous line he speaks in the play, when he is considering suicide: “To be or not to be; that is the question” (Hamlet, act III, scene I). This is a question he never answers. Instead, he contemplates the options for a length of time until he is distracted. This is a pattern he repeats throughout the play.

Note how this example does restate the quote by inserting the clause, “when he is considering suicide.” While an understanding of the quote is important to convey to your reader, it is not the main reason for using the quote. The main reason is to support the claim that Hamlet is indecisive.

Finally, one thing you should never do is use a quote just to replace a sentence you would have written yourself anyway. For example, don’t do this:

The Metamorphosis is a story about a man named Gregor Samsa. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect” (Kafka 1). After he awoke…

The quote in this case is useless. You gain nothing from using Kafka’s words and not your own.

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