A Quick Guide to Quotations

A Quick Guide to Quotations – or How to Look Clever Without Even Trying
Dr Christopher Burlinson, University of Cambridge

Go straight to the interactive quiz

When you are writing an essay about a literary text, it’s often a good idea to copy out and discuss passages from the text that you’re writing about, or from essays or books that other scholars have written about the same text. When you use these passages in your essay, they are called ‘quotations’.

Quotations can make your essay stand out in a number of ways. They can improve its style, make it more distinctive, and make its argument more accurate, specific and detailed. These pages will tell you how to select quotations from other books, how to say what you think about them, and how to incorporate them into your essays.

Once you have read through these introductory lessons, you can move on to our interactive quiz, where you can read some examples of students’ essays, and decide whether they make a good or bad use of quotations.

Why do you need quotations?

They present evidence for what you want to say, and make your argument stronger.

They show that you are being accurate in what you’re saying.

They help you to be specific in your argument, and to get quickly to the heart of the question.

They allow you to show that you can see that other people have ideas which are different from yours.

They are a good way of evaluating other people’s arguments, and saying why you believe they are equally valid, or not as good as yours.

But remember…

You are using quotations to make it easier for you to express your own ideas!

Your ideas are always as interesting as the ideas of other scholars. If you end up just putting down other people’s arguments in slightly different words, you aren’t presenting your own ideas, and your essay won’t be so interesting to read.

Quoting is not Plagiarizing!

Quoting does not mean looking for other people’s ideas in books or on the internet, and pretending that they are your own. This is called ‘plagiarizing’.

Plagiarizing is never a good idea.

It won’t allow you to write such a good essay! You don’t have to worry if your ideas are different from the ones that you read in critical books or essays. What examiners and readers want to know is that you can see how your ideas are different, and can say why you think one point of view is different from, or better than, another.

Examiners will always be able to see that you‚Äôve plagiarized someone else’s work. They are very familiar with the other books that you might have been reading, and can check on the internet for passages that they think you might have plagiarized.

When you’re using quotations, you should always acknowledge where they come from!

So, what kinds of things can you quote?

Types of Writing and Types of Quote

The other books and essays that you might want to quote in your essays can be divided into primary texts and secondary texts.

This has nothing at all to do with how important, how old or how good you think the other books are. It is a way of describing what kind of books or essays they are.

Primary texts are the play, or novel, or poem that you are analysing, or other texts of a similar kind. So, for example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles are all primary texts. A work of literature, however recently it has been written, would be a primary text. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a primary text, because it is a novel rather than a book about novels.

Secondary texts are other people’s ideas about literary texts. Secondary texts are usually written about primary texts. So, for example, A.C.Bradley’s book, Shakespearean Tragedy, which was written in 1904 and which analyses Shakespeare’s plays, is a secondary text.

Evaluating Quotes

Some secondary texts will obviously be more useful than others when you are writing an essay.

There are no hard and fast rules about which things will be most useful to you, but there are some questions that you can ask yourself when you are deciding whether to quote something.

Who Wrote It?

Is the writer a scholar or a student, an amateur enthusiast or an actor?

You might decide that you can trust some people’s arguments and ideas more than others.

Some people might be able to offer a new, interesting perspective on a text you are writing about. Would a Professor at a university in Africa, for example, have a different perspective on Othello to a Professor in a university in England? What kinds of ideas about a play could you get from a person who had acted in it and a person who had read it?

Always ask yourself: why should I trust this person? What are their credentials? What kind of ideas are they going to offer me?

Where and How Did They Publish It?

Did you find the quotation on a personal website, or in a book? A website attached to a university might be more trustworthy than a personal website, because it will probably have been designed and checked by lots of different people. You can sometimes tell this if the URL (the electronic address of the website) ends with ‘’ or ‘edu’ – or the webpage might give some indication of the university that has helped to produce it.

If a personal website is written by a professor or expert, it might also have lots of valuable information.

Who else has read or checked this piece of writing? If it is in a book, lots of other people will have checked it for mistakes (the author, editor, publisher, etc.), but the same might not be true for other kinds of information.

How long has the author spent writing it? Some books might have taken several years to write – their arguments and ideas might be better developed than a school essay project that has been written overnight.

Why Did They Write It?

What kind of point are they trying to get across as a whole?

Where do their individual ideas, arguments or sentences fit into this?

What do you think of their ideas as a whole?

Points to Remember

Don’t assume that you can always trust some kinds of texts, and that others are always going to be unreliable!

But always ask yourself the questions that we have just discussed – who is this person? where did they publish this piece of writing? why did they write what they did? Then you’ll have a better chance of coming to a good, considered opinion about what you’re reading.

The most important thing is that you take a critical approach to everything that you read!