When to Quote and When to Paraphrase

It’s a pity when surface problems scuttle otherwise strong scholarship. As an editor, I’ve noticed that poorly handled quotations are particularly damning. Inelegant use of prior scholarship can give the impression that a writer is unsophisticated, or even amateur. Naturally, research does involve mining books and articles to inform our own arguments, which are ideally novel and substantial but still reference that prior work. So of course there’s a temptation to repurpose existing literature that seems to say exactly what needs to be said in order to get to ideas that are original. It can certainly be difficult to think around the particular ways in which influential scholars have formulated cornerstone concepts. Because quoting prior scholarship is so integral to most academic disciplines, it pervades the research process. Material recorded verbatim in the information-gathering stage can find its way into manuscripts. Heck, drafting sometimes even starts with a skeleton of quotes germane to a topic; new writing is then added as connective tissue pulling it all together. Here’s what that method looks like: “quotation” + enough original material to get to the next point + “another quotation” And then there’s the quote-sandwich technique we all learned in college (or even high school): short introduction + “quotation” + brief explanation (quickly followed by another quote sandwich) I’ve noticed that these “quote quilt” approaches are favored by graduate students and scholars writing their first manuscripts, which tend to grow out of their dissertations. But despite its associations with student work, I wouldn’t say that stitching quotations together is a strictly verboten scholarly drafting method. I’ve used it myself. Using quotations to anchor...

Getting Smart with Quotes

You know how sometimes you see quotation marks and apostrophes that turn toward the text they’re associated with—and sometimes they’re just straight up and down, almost like hatch marks? The former kind go by many names: directional quotation marks, smart quotes, curly quotes, or typographer’s quotation marks. And they’re much more pleasing to the reading eye than straight quotes are. So what happens if you find that your manuscript is inconsistent in its style of quotation marks? Some are smart—brilliant, even—and others are just poor, unidirectional excuses for inverted commas. The inconsistency could drive you batty. There’s actually a pretty quick way to fix this in one fell swoop or two, at least if you use Microsoft Word. I’ve talked about using find-and-replace operations before. Enforcing consistent use of directional quotation marks (and apostrophes!) means we’ll revisit those functions. CLARIFICATION: Now, you could put quotation marks (“) or an apostrophe (‘) in both the find and replace fields and run a fast replace-all operation for each. This would work, but it will replace every quotation mark and apostrophe, even the ones that are already smart and already facing the right direction. For the most part, that works, but because Microsoft Word isn’t a mind reader, it will make, for instance, every apostrophe or opening quotation marks after an em dash (—) face left. In my experience, we usually want those to open toward the right, and usually these are already correctly oriented if we have employed smart quotes for the most part. The slightly more technical solution below will help when you have both smart and straight quotes in a...

Shhhhh: Silently Altering Quoted Material

Sometimes quotes just don’t want to fit within the structure of our sentences. Unless you are in a legal field, some sciences, or writing for a UK publisher, you can silently tame quoted material in a number of permissible ways. This means that you don’t have to flag your insertions, deletions, and changes by using brackets, ellipses, or footnotes. I’ll break the rules down by major academic style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, § 11.8 OK to change silently: case of quotation’s first letter (“paradigms of excellence” to “Paradigms of excellence,” for instance) single quotation marks to double, and vice versa final punctuation that doesn’t fit the grammar of your own sentence, except question marks, exclamation marks, semicolons, colons, and dashes that are not original to the quotation—these must be placed outside the quotation marks endnote and footnote callouts (they can be omitted in quotation) Fraktur and archaic letters (“goodneʃs” to “goodness” and “Vnited” to “United,” for example) Not OK to change silently: omitted material (use ellipses) inserted material (enclose in brackets) added emphasis, usually expressed in italics (note by inserting “emphasis added” in brackets after the quote) clarifications (“he [James] spoke of troubled times”) MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th edition, § 3.7 OK to change silently: closing punctuation (quoted material woven into the end of your own declarative sentence can take a period even if not in the original) Not OK to change silently: basically everything else: capitalization, spelling, interior punctuation, omissions, additions, emphasis, inserted explanations Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition, § 6.07 OK to change silently: case...

Parenthe-seize the Divided List!

When we write a list within a sentence, we often want to make the structure absolutely clear by numbering or lettering the items in the series. For students and junior scholars, the divided list is even more important, as it is the well-known writers who can assume that their readers won’t abandon overly complex, understructured passages. When dividing a list, make sure that: numbers or letters appear within a set of parentheses (rather than simply following the number or letter with one parenthesis) elements are grammatically parallel (all nouns, for instance) appropriate punctuational dividers are used the imposed structure illuminates rather than obscures meaning the divisions do not unintentionally imply hierarchy That itself could be formatted as a divided list within a sentence: The key aspects of serializing are the following: (1) numbers or letters appear within a set of parentheses; (2) elements are grammatically parallel; (3) appropriate punctuational dividers are used; (4) the imposed structure illuminates rather than obscures meaning; and (5) the divisions do not unintentionally imply hierarchy. Let’s say that Michel Foucault wanted to make this complicated sentence a bit more organized to the reading eye: Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on...

“Scared”? The Punctuation That’s Eroding Your Credibility

One of the most powerful tools—and persistent hobgoblins—of communicators is the use of scare quotes. They’re used to distance the writer from the term in question. When someone makes the two-finger air-quotes gesture while speaking, that’s the real-world equivalent of written scare quotes. Examples: astrological “science” “life” in prison The scare quotes strongly imply that astrology isn’t really a science and question the degree to which incarceration can be considered truly living. To an extent, the quotation marks are useful. They quickly signal to a reader that a term is to be treated with a grain of salt. But scare quotes can easily and quickly be overused, diluting their power. To avoid this happening to you, dear reader, follow these handy tips: Say what you mean. Sometimes scare quotes force your readers to guess which aspect of the term you are undercutting. (Are you saying that astrology is regrettably unscientific or that astrology should aspire to be an art rather than a science? What is it about calling astrology a science that you find objectionable?) Good writing shouldn’t be a guessing game for readers. Don’t use scare quotes when words will do the job. The Chicago Manual of Style suggests using “so-called” before the dubious term. The example given is as follows: So-called child protection sometimes fails to protect. Don’t use quotes for emphasis; they can easily be taken for scare quotes. There’s nothing more cringe-inducing than quotation marks used to denote emphasis: Try these “all-beef” hot dogs! If you want your impassioned statements to be taken seriously, skip the quotation marks; consider italics. In case you need more...