Quotation Rules: Formatting

So you want to include a quotation, but the tense in the quoted material doesn’t match what you’re writing. Or perhaps something like this happens: “I want to explain to you how the book said ‘reading will change them.’ ” Suppose the original line in the book said, “People often find that experiences from reading will change them,” but you want to explain to your friend that reading may change him or her directly (the “you” being explained to). You can see now where the nested quote came from, but the pronoun “them” doesn’t match with the pronoun “you” from the longer quotation and the intended meaning is not expressed. Quotations are supposed to show exactly what the original source said, but isn’t there any way to fix this?

This is part of a series on quotations: check the first article for basic info or see the third article for more details on how to write dialogue.

How to Change a Quotation

There is a way, of course! If you need to make minor technical changes to a quotation so that the grammar of it works with your writing, you can simply mark your changes with square brackets [ ] so the reader knows it differs from the original. Be sure the meaning stays the same, however, so that you are not misrepresenting your source. Also, it is not acceptable to use parentheses ( ) in this role, so make sure you get the square ones!

For the example above, you could write:

I want to explain to you how the book said “reading will change [you].”

Adjusting the pronoun allows the quotation to work naturally with the rest of the sentence while preserving the main idea of the original. You can use this same approach to fix differences in tense:

The boy explained that he “like to throw things to see how they bounce”.

The original source might be the boy talking in first-person, saying “I like to throw things to see how they bounce.” However, in the context of the example, the agreement between subject and verb becomes a problem. Fix it like this:

The boy explained that he “like[s] to throw things to see how they bounce”.

Another situation in which bracketed edits might be useful is if a quotation includes pronouns for which the antecedent is not clear. You can replace the pronoun in the quotation with the antecedent to which it refers by substituting the noun in brackets.

Suppose you want to quote someone talking about their experience traveling to the Grand Canyon. The original line says, “Going to that place was the most exciting trip ever.” If you are reporting these words and you write them as provided, it might come out like this example:

The boy scout explained, “Going to that place was the most exciting trip ever.”

The power of a quotation is in showing someone’s specific words. However, the quotation used in the example above could be talking about any place, since “that place” is not identified. As long as the original was actually about the Grand Canyon (so that the truth of the quote is preserved), you could edit it as follows:

The boy scout explained, “Going to [the Grand Canyon] was the most exciting trip ever.”

Flagging Errors

You can also use brackets to indicate that there is some spelling or grammar error in the quotation you are using that is not your fault. Technically, you should re-write the original just as it first appeared, including any errors there may be. Although you could correct the wording using the methods above, you could also just flag it with [sic]. This little word, “sic”, is Latin for “thus”. Just add [sic] immediately after the error to indicate you do not take responsibility for it.

The article stated, “written words often has [sic] several meanings.”

Adding Emphasis

Though the text of a quote should match the original, you do have the liberty to stress certain parts of it by italicizing if you wish. However, if you do so, you should write [emphasis added] in brackets just before the closing quotation mark.

“It is truly important to practice writing [emphasis added],” the author claims in his autobiography.

Including [emphasis added] indicates to the reader that the original quote did not have the italicization and you added it yourself. If the original did have italics already included and you made no change, then there is no need to add a bracketed comment.

Deleting Part of a Quotation

If you need to reference a long quote, but only parts of it are relevant to your discussion, then you can also pick and choose which words to include. As always, you should be careful to make sure what you write holds the same meaning as the original. However, if you want to skip part of the quoted text, place an ellipsis . . . where the missing text would be.

If the original text discusses irrelevant ideas, you can trim it to suit your work.

This author believes good English writing comes with much practice and consistent study that includes book learning and creative exercises, allowing the writer to not only read about but try for themselves the creation of elegant prose.

Someone referencing this passage in a paper might shorten it as follows.

The author states that she “believes good English writing comes with much practice…allowing the writer to…try for themselves the creation of elegant prose.”

Notice how the overall meaning is the same (so the quotation keeps its original integrity) but the phrasing has been shortened to focus on the main ideas. Use ellipses to make including quotations more efficient.

Editing Power!

Each of these tools gives you the ability adjust quotations so that they suit your work exactly right. You can fix pronouns and tense, flag errors, and trim excess information. Apply the flexibility of these options to improve your writing and use quotations like a pro!

Practice Time

Below are three sets of problems. Check the answers for all of them at the end of the page.

Part 1
Use brackets to revise the tense or pronoun use in the following exercises.

  1. The author wrote that she “think every day will come only once.”
  2. They should “travel often to widen your horizons.”
  3. The article said you “will live best if he remembers the simple joys.”

Part 2
Flag the errors by adding [sic] in the appropriate place.

  1. “First file your application then bring a copy of them to the office.”
  2. “You can’t make no good grades without studying.”
  3. “He don’t realize what an opportunity he’s missing.”

Part 3
Use an ellipsis to shorten the following quotes, keeping only the main ideas.

  1. The weather can be very chancy in parts of the United States, running temperatures well over 100˚F in the summer in western states like Arizona that may quickly drop to freezing at night or changing from bright sunlight to threatening thunderstorm within minutes in states like Texas, making outdoor activities in these locations difficult to plan.
  2. There are many things you need to prepare before traveling, including your luggage, travel documents, arrangements for lodging, and actual transportation, so it is best to begin making arrangements early.
  3. Food can be one of the most interesting parts of culture — every society has its own distinct foods and flavors that are favored by the populace, with spicy foods common in some areas, salty ones in others, and sweet items popular in others still, so that eating itself can sometimes be a motivation for travel.

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Answers
Part 1

  1. The author wrote that she “think[s] every day will come only once.”
  2. They should “travel often to widen [their] horizons.”
  3. The article said you “will live best if [you remember] the simple joys.”

Part 2

  1. “First file your application then bring a copy of them [sic] to the office.”
  2. “You can’t make no [sic] good grades without studying.”
  3. “He don’t [sic] realize what an opportunity he’s missing.”

Part 3

  1. The weather can be very chancy in parts of the United States…making outdoor activities in these locations difficult to plan.
  2. There are many things you need to prepare before traveling…so it is best to begin making arrangements early.
  3. Food can be one of the most interesting parts of culture…so that eating itself can sometimes be a motivation for travel.

5 thoughts on “Quotation Rules: Formatting

Add yours

  1. Wonderful article, confirming that I had excellent HS English teachers! 🙂 FYI: Your links to the first and third articles are broken.
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

    Like

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