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Quoting Well, Part 1: It’s More Than Just Accuracy

Academics love to quote—as evidence, as embellishment, as filler. Snippets and long blocks. Quotations within quotations. It’s a pity that so many do it so poorly. Here is Part 1 of some advice from a copy editor experienced in tidying up quotations.

—On accuracy. Long quotations in the manuscripts I read seem more error-free than in years past, which I attribute to easy cutting and pasting from online sources (as opposed to inexpert typing). Unfortunately, easy pasting also increases the rate at which published typos are replicated. So read what you paste, and if anything looks amiss, investigate further.

—On syntax. Some writers have a tin ear when it comes to sliding a quotation nicely into a sentence. It’s OK to borrow a word or two from the quotation in order to avoid chopping “it into a quoted phrase” of ugliness. As long as the actual quotation is accurate, no one will accuse you of plagiarism if instead you finesse it into a “quoted phrase” that’s more lovely.

­­—On capitalization. Changing the case of the first word of a quotation to jibe with its surroundings is a well-accepted convention that is not always understood or observed by writers. I’ll discuss how to do this in more detail in Part 2.

—On ellipses. Leaving material out of a quotation requires those three little dots … and causes endless confusion for quoters. The Chicago Manual of Style has good advice in Chapter 13 (which I will expand on in Part 3). But here’s one tip: Ellipses are rarely needed at the beginning or end of a quotation. Readers understand that a quotation is taken from a larger text, so save your dots for material that’s missing from the middle and for quotations that end midsentence.

—On sources. The source is not part of the quotation, but it is usually treated as part of the containing sentence: “The borrowings of good writers are never thus superfluous” (Walter Raleigh, Style, 117). Thus the source follows the ending quotation mark, and the sentence ends after the source.

When you set off a long quotation as a block, however, there are no quotation marks. So put the source after the end of the last sentence, lest it be taken as part of the quote. By convention, the source itself has no ending punctuation.

In its grossest and most servile form quotation is a lazy folly; a thought
has received some signal or notorious expression, and as often as the old
sense, or something like it, recurs, the old phrase rises to the lips. This
degenerates to simple phrase-mongering, and those who practise it are
not vigilantly jealous of their meaning. (Walter Raleigh, Style, 117)

On sic. Sic is properly used (1) when you must reproduce a suspicious or incorrect original exactly and wish to make it clear that you have not introduced the problem yourself in typing, or (2) when the error is relevant to the discussion. Use sic humanely. If the original contains a typo of no consequence, it is polite—and justifiable—to correct it quietly.

In Part 2, I’ll write about when it’s OK, and not OK, to change something in a quotation.

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Quotations from Walter Raleigh are from his Style, 3rd ed. (London: Edward Arnold, 1898).

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Readers may send Carol questions about academic writing, editing, and publishing. Write to her at AskCarolSaller@gmail.com. (Please ask questions about Chicago style here.)


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