One of the hardest writing techniques to learn and remember is how to quote a quote—yes, quote is one of those words that’s both a verb (“Can I quote you on that?”) and a noun (“I’m learning how to correctly punctuate quotes.”). There are so many rules for quoting quotes that it can be hard to keep track of them all. How do you “run in” a quote? What’s a block quotation? When does punctuation go inside quotation marks, and when should it be placed outside? Do quotes ever not need quotation marks? What are the rules for how to cite a quote? In this post, we’ll answer these questions and more, so you can quote quotes with confidence.
If you intend to quote a short passage in your writing, you’ll want to format it as a run-in quotation. Run-in quotes are always enclosed in quotation marks, and whether punctuation appears inside or outside the quotation marks depends on the punctuation: periods and commas go inside the quotation marks, and question marks and exclamation points that aren’t original to the quoted material appear outside the quotation marks.
Longer quotes, usually six to eight or more complete sentences, are called block quotations. To set them off from the rest of the text, you should begin block quotations on their own line and indent them half an inch. Unlike run-in quotations, block quotations are not enclosed in quotation marks. If you’re wondering whether you should quote a quote as a run-in or block quotation, a good rule of thumb is that if the quote is longer than one hundred words (or more than one paragraph or stanza), you should probably set it off as a block quotation.
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes the difficult process every writer faces when writing a book:
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed.
How to format run-in and block quotes is easy to learn with practice, but throw different types of quotes into the mix, and things get complicated again.
When you’re quoting poetry, it’s best to set off a quote of two or more lines as a block quotation (remember that block quotations don’t take quotation marks).
Billy Collins’s poem “Introduction to Poetry” begins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide.
If you run a short poetry quotation of no more than two lines into the text, the quote should be enclosed in quotation marks, and the line break should be indicated with a slash with a space on each side.
A few lines later, Collins’s poem continues with “I say drop a mouse into a poem / and watch him probe his way out,” an interesting use of imagery to describe the experience of studying poetry.
There are different rules for quotes within run-in quotations and quotes within block quotations.
Because run-in quotes are enclosed in double quotation marks, a quote within a quote takes single quotation marks.
In contrast, because block quotes are not enclosed in quotation marks, a quote within a quote takes double quotation marks.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Quoting dialogue can be tricky, but as it usually involves more than one paragraph, it’s best formatted as a block quotation. When block quotations contain several paragraphs, the paragraphs should retain the paragraph indents of the original material. As explained above, though block quotations don’t take quotation marks, dialogue within the block quote should be enclosed in double quotation marks.
“What think you of books?” said he, smiling.
“Books—oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings.”
“I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions.”
“No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else.”
Likewise, when you’re quoting dialogue from plays, such as Shakespeare’s verse dialogue, quotes should be formatted similarly to poetry.
Romeo’s unfailing optimism is frequently emphasized in his conversations with Juliet.
JULIET. O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?
ROMEO. I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.
Should you introduce quotes with commas or colons? As you’ve probably already noticed in our examples, it depends on the sentence’s structure.
If the introductory phrase is not a complete sentence, use a comma before the quote.
If the quote follows an independent clause (a complete sentence), use a colon.
If the quote fits into the sentence syntactically, don’t use a comma or a colon.
Similar to using commas or colons with quotes, whether a quote begins with a capital or lowercase letter depends on the sentence structure, regardless of the capitalization in the original quote.
For both run-in and block quotations, when a quote functions as a syntactical part of the sentence, it should begin with a lowercase letter.
For both run-in and block quotations, when the quote is not syntactically essential, the first letter may be capitalized.
If you’re trying to quote a quote but it doesn’t fit into the syntax of your sentence, what do you do? This is where square brackets come to the rescue: they allow you to change a word or two to make the quote fit into a sentence.
An ellipsis generally indicates a word or several words have been removed from quoted material. How to quote a quote using ellipses is a complicated discussion, and different style guides have quite different rules. We at Elite most often use Chicago style when we’re editing, so that’s what we’ll use here to explain when, where, and if ellipses should appear in quotes.
You should almost never use an ellipsis at the beginning of a quote, even if you’ve removed the entire beginning of the sentence.
Similarly, an ellipsis at the end of a quote is rarely necessary, even if you’ve removed most of the end of the sentence. Only use an ellipsis is the sentence is deliberately grammatically incomplete.
When you remove words from the middle of sentences or paragraphs, that’s when you’ll use an ellipsis.
When you remove one or more words from the middle of a sentence, use a three-dot ellipsis; when you remove the end of a sentence or the beginning of the next sentence, use a three-dot ellipsis after a period. The following passage is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
Here’s how to use ellipses to shorten the above passage:
When you remove words in poetry, the ellipsis rules are a bit different. If you remove a few words, follow the ellipsis guidelines above. If you remove an entire line or several lines from a poem, use a line of widely spaced dots approximately the same length as the preceding line. Here’s an example from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”:
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Similar to the rules for ellipses, how to cite a quote depends largely on which style guide you’re using. So when you’re deciding how to cite a quote in your writing, you should use the citation style that’s most relevant to your field (or, if you’re a student, the style guide your teacher stipulates). Whatever style guide you use, the most important thing is to cite your sources as clearly and thoroughly as possible.
One aspect of citation that’s largely consistent across citation styles is where parenthetical citations appear in a quote. Keep in mind that in run-in quotes, the sentence’s terminal punctuation should appear after the parenthetical citation, but in block quotes, this is reversed, and the parenthetical citation should appear outside the terminal punctuation.
We’ve talked about everything from how to quote short and long passages to how to cite a quote to how to punctuate quotes in various contexts, but you have one more punctuation decision to make: Should you use straight or curly quotes with your quotations? Usually, either is fine, and all we can really say here is that one of the keys to excellent writing is consistency—so whichever type of quotation marks you use, stick with it throughout your piece!
As we’ve mentioned throughout this post, learning how to format quotations takes practice. But once you’ve learned the rules, you’ll be able to use quotations effectively to support and clarify your writing.
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