20 When to use Citations and Quotations

Basic rules for both:

A good historical essay keeps the support for its argument transparent and its readers engaged. These two priorities—allowing readers to follow the evidence and judge it for themselves, while reminding them why they should care, as the story involves real people and their thoughts—can help students decide when they must use a citation and/or when they should use a quote from their sources, whether primary or secondary.

When to include a footnote (or endnote):

In terms of citations (footnotes or endnotes, depending on your professor’s instructions or your preference in the absence of instructions, as they are the same), the general rule is that you need to help your readers check your evidence to see if your evidence supports your thesis, should they choose to so. However, there are some specific occasions when you must use a footnote/endnote:

  • Direct quotes from a primary or secondary source
  • Paraphrased information from either a primary or secondary source. Even if you are changing the words, you are still responsible for showing where you got your information. Mature scholars name the source (or, more likely, sources) that laid the groundwork for their own analysis. Doing so doesn’t make you seem unknowledgeable, but rather helps your readers understand how you are building knowledge.
  • Facts that are not well known. You do not have to cite a source for noting when the US joined World War I, or for the route that Lewis and Clark took—as those are knowable facts from any number of sources. But if you cite specific conversations held between cabinet officials prior to the War, or detail the Native groups met at each bend in the river—material another scholar found by research primary sources—you must cite that scholar. Show your readers where you found new, or not widely known information.
  • Another scholar’s controversial opinion. If you refer to a claim about the past that isn’t widely accepted—that is, not concerning when the Civil War began, but rather which politicians were to blame for its outbreak—you need to cite where you got that opinion. (Of course, you do not need to provide citations for your own analysis, controversial or otherwise.)
  • Statistics – these are like lesser-known facts, given that statistics can vary depending upon who compiled them. For this reason, you need to cite where you found your numerical facts and figures.

Two other footnote/endnote rules:

  • “Talking” or annotated notes: If it’s helpful for readers to understand additional information that’s not so critical that it belongs in the text, you may provide an explanatory foot/end note with information beyond the source citation. Beware though—some editors and instructors don’t approve, as they believe that any information not critical to the argument is not critical to the essay.
  • Condensing foot/end notes: Many journals and instructors allow you to provide a citation at the end of a paragraph with the multiple sources that helped you create that paragraph, rather than providing a citation at every sentence, or portion of sentence that rested on a secondary source.

When to quote directly:

In many ways, the same situations that call for a citation to the general source also make for a good situation in which to include a direct quotation (as opposed to paraphrasing your information). At the same time, you don’t want to overquote—we’re interested in your thoughts, not those of five other experts. You should also use your own words unless there’s a compelling need to quote, such as bringing in a unique voice or capturing a controversial fact or opinion. A good essay offers variety in a number of ways—word choice, sentence structure, and which sources provide quotations. Here are some places where a direct quotation from the source are warranted:

  • An authoritative source—the main book on a topic—says something important or controversial.
  • When any source uses language that is compelling, and thus should not just be paraphrased.
  • In order to get the “flavor” or language of the wording from a primary source.
  • Most quotes in your paper should come from primary sources, not secondary ones.

How to quote:

  • Avoid “block quotes” unless the reader must see a large portion of the primary source to understand your analysis, and all of that explanation must be in the source’s voice. That is, when quoting, include just enough of the quotation to make sense, without adding parts of the quote that don’t pertain to your analysis or go into more detail than needed. But on the whole, phrases or a single sentence cover your bases.
  • When you do need to use a block quote, indent it and use single spacing.
  • Never let any quote—including a rare block quote—stand on its own. You must explain what the source means. The requirement that all sources must be analyzed in the text means that you should not begin or end a paragraph with a quotation, except perhaps in a very rare stylistic moment when doing so will not leave the reader confused.
  • If you do not want to use all your source’s words, you may use ellipses, which are three spaced dots like this (make sure you put a space between each period, never put them directly beside each other): . . .
  • If you would like to use a source’s words, but need to change something to make it fit into your sentence (such as a verb tense or a pronoun) use square brackets for a word you changed. You may NOT change an entire word.
  • However, if you need to change several words in a quotation, it’s usually best to quote only a phrase, rather than burdening a quote with ellipses and brackets.
  • Make sure that your quote supports the point you’re trying to make and doesn’t read like a random quote from the individual under examination.

Some examples from Mary Rowland’s Captivity Narrative [1682]

Mary Rowlandson was a Puritan woman who was captured by Native Americans during King Phillip’s War and held captive for eleven weeks. When she returned to her home, she wrote a narrative about her experiences. What follows are some examples of how you might use parts of one quotation from Rowlandson’s book. From that primary source:

“It is not my tongue, or pen, can express the sorrows of my heart, and bitterness of my spirit that I had at this departure: but God was with me in a wonderful manner, carrying me along, and bearing up my spirit, that it did not quite fail. One of the Indians carried my poor wounded babe upon a horse; it went moaning all along, ‘I shall die, I shall die.’ I went on foot after it, with sorrow that cannot be expressed.”

  • Double [“] versus single [‘] quotation marks.
    • Double quotation marks [“] signal the beginning and end of a quotation. If there are quotations within what you are quoting—in this case, the words of the child [“I shall die, I shall die”]—mark them with single quotation marks [‘]. The use of double quotations are standard in American English (but not British English). Single quotes within double quotes indicate interior quotes the passage.
  • Indent long quotes by five spaces.
    • See the indent in the example above, which counts as “long.”

If I wanted to use the quote to discuss Rowlandson’s state of mind:

Early in her captivity, Mary Rowlandson experienced enormous fear and loss. As she put it, her “pen [could not] express the sorrows of my heart, and bitterness of my spirit” upon leaving her community.

  • Although you must be true to the meaning of a primary source, you should keep your quotes from primary sources concise.
    • In the state of mind quote above, the part of the quote that covers her faith isn’t necessary to make this point and is omitted.
  • Although you must be true to the meaning of a primary source, for the purpose of flow, you may alter a quoted phrase to fit with the grammar of a sentence. Any changes from the original or explanatory inclusions are marked with square brackets.
    • In the above example, the altered verb tense (could not, rather than can) flows better with the sentence but does not change Rowlandson’s meaning.
    • Changing verb tenses and substituting or clarifying a pronoun that is not clear in the original mark the limits of altering a quote, for the most part.
  • Any source quoted must fit the point.
    • Incorrect: The Indians who captured Rowlandson were particularly cruel. “It is not my tongue, or pen, can express the sorrows of my heart, and bitterness of my spirit that I had at this departure.”
      • This passage is about her feelings, not what the Indians were doing.
      • It’s also incorrect because there are no “stitching” words or a colon to link the primary source quote to the analytical statement of the author.
    • Correct: The Indians who captured Rowlandson were particularly cruel. As Rowlandson noted, while her child moaned, she “went on foot after it, with sorrow that cannot be expressed.”
  • Ellipses must be used when parts of the original source are not included, unless at the beginning or end of the quote (unless the reader might assume that this quote represents the full statement on the matter).
    • For example, in a sentence about how Rowlandson used language that suggested a physical experience of faith: Rowlandson referred to physical, rather than emotional, manifestations of her faith frequently. For example, she spoke of “God . . . carrying me along, and bearing up my spirit.”
    • Note that brackets were not necessary because all words are in original.
  • Quotations from primary sources enliven your prose and acquaint readers with human thoughts and emotions.
    • For example: Rowlandson emphasized her status as a mother to awaken sympathy in her readers. As she put it, while an Indian carried her “poor wounded babe,” she was forced to follow “on foot after [the child], with sorrow that cannot be expressed.”
      • Note that the language of “poor wounded babe” is an expressive phrase that captures Rowlandson’s voice.
      • Substituting [the child] for “it” makes the sentence clearer.
Quotation Practice Quiz



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How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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