Using quotations in essays

Although as a rule it is advisable to use your own words when describing or summarising the work of others, sometimes the point being made can only really be expressed in the words of those whose work you are citing. There may also be occasions when you need to illustrate or ‘bring to life’ the point you are making, and a well-chosen quotation can be highly effective in this regard. In addition, there are times when you need to focus directly on the work of others, such as when considering a poem, play, or novel, or when critically evaluating the claims others make in letters to newspapers, website commentaries, or books they have written. In these instances, you can only do so by quoting their exact words (otherwise you may be accused of misinterpreting/misrepresenting their views).

For quotations in UK English, single quotation marks should be used. Only use double quotation marks for ‘quotations within a quotation’. For example, ‘My wife said to me, “you never do enough work around the house”, which I think is unfair’. In US English, the reverse applies.

There are also particular rules you should follow when introducing a quotation in your essay. No additional punctuation is required if the quote follows on naturally from the rest of the sentence, e.g. Jones (1986) asserted that ‘people need to eat more healthily to prevent an obesity crisis in the UK’.

However, if the quotation does not follow on from the text (it stands alone), then use a colon, e.g. I find Larkin’s words to be evocative but maudlin in nature: ‘Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth’.

You can also introduce quotes using a descriptive verb, such as ‘claims’, ‘comments’, and ‘states’, followed by a comma, e.g. …as Clarke opines, ‘there is no way we can accept such nefarious behaviour’. It is, of course, also acceptable to simply use ‘says’ but this is less formal and can lead to a rather dull essay!

Finally, it is important to address how to use punctuation within quotes. In UK English, it is conventional to use a full stop outside the quote (as shown in the above examples). The exception in UK English is when the entire sentence is a quote; in this case, place the full stop within the quote. In US English, the full stop is always included within the quote. Question marks and exclamation marks should be placed within quotation marks if they form part of the quote, e.g. ‘she turned around and screamed!’ However, they should be placed outside quotation marks when they form part of the sentence but not the actual quote, e.g. is it reasonable to argue, as Brown does, that ‘it would be better if we privatised the NHS’? Note that in both cases, there is no requirement for a full stop. 

If in doubt about how to use quotations in your academic essay, you can get the help of a specialist proofreading services provider.