Why, When, and How to use Quotations?

If you’re writing an essay in MLA format and you need to either incorporate dialogue or textual material from another source, you will need to know how to handle MLA formatted quotations. You will also need to know how to handle MLA formatted parenthetical citations, but that’s another post.

There are some rules, however, that you need to abide by:

  • Only use a quotation if it’s necessary and adds something your words cannot
  • If you’re quoting someone else, you must give them credit
  • Longer quotes (four or more lines) must be in block quote format
Only Use a Quotation if it’s Necessary

Some professors or teachers give assignments that require you to incorporate quotes in your material. While that means it’s up to you to find appropriate quotes from good source material, it is also up to you to make sure they fit in the body of your work. Do not simply stuff a quote in because you need one. Likewise, if you have a quote that contains material you could say better yourself, say it yourself! No more than 20% of the average paper should be made up of quotations. After all, your professor or teacher wants to see what you know and say about the material, not what someone else does.

As for what constitutes good source material, it’s never Wikipedia, or online encyclopedias, or ask.com or Livestrong.com. Your best sources will come from websites that end in .edu or .gov as those are the most rigorously vetted sources of information.

If You’re Quoting Someone Else, You Must Give them Credit

That’s what in-text, or parenthetical citations are for. If you use someone else’s words, paraphrase their words, use their words but substitute some of your own in a few places, or even reuse your words from a previous assignment without permission from both the  person for whom you wrote the assignment initially, and the person to whom you are submitting your work, you are plagiarizing.


I’m not kidding. I work with student writers every day, and I can tell within two or three minutes if a paper is plagiarized and which parts are plagiarized. Give me another minute and I’ll have the source(s) identified. I’m not trying to trick you, I’m telling you straight out. YOU WILL BE CAUGHT. YOU MAY BE EXPELLED. DON’T RISK IT.

Okay, back to quotes. If you quote someone’s words directly,  put them in quotation marks, and then finish the quotation with a citation.

Example: “This study documents what many observers of current English usage have suspected to be true: singular they is well established in the public writing of adult Americans” (Meyers 234).

This quote is less than five lines long, is used word for word, is written by someone with the last name of Meyers, and is on page 234 of their text. Note that the final punctuation from the quote comes after the citation.

But what if you’re paraphrasing?

If you had to look something up to use it in your paper, you need to cite your source. The only time you do not need to cite a source is if the fact is considered common knowledge.

How do you determine if something is common knowledge?

Use the “ask your mama” rule. If you can call up your mama right this second and ask her, “Mama, what’s the current stance of adult Americans regarding the use of the singular they?” and she comes back with, “It’s well established and accepted within the realm of public use,” then you are good to go. Otherwise, cite.

Citing a Paraphrased Source:
Example: A study has demonstrated that American adults are happy to use the singular they in every day spoken and written language (Meyers 234).

You see that? You see? I paraphrased the material, but I still had to cite it the same way. That is because it’s effectively the same material, just not used as a quote this time. If you use someone’s thoughts or words, you have to cite them. End of discussion.

But what about a longer quote? That’s when a block quote format is used:

This study documents what many observers of current English usage have suspected to be true: singular they is well established in the public writing of adult Americans. The study suggests also that many writers find generic pronoun constructions of the he or she type acceptable alternatives to singular they or masculine generic pronouns. (Meyers 234)

A block quote is indented 1″ from the left, does not start with quotation marks, does not end with quotation marks, and the final punctuation comes before the citation. Crazy, no? (Crazy, yes!)

What About Putting Regular Stuff in Quotation Marks?
If you’re writing dialogue, or if for some reason you have material in quotation marks that is not a quote from another source, in America the rules on the ending punctuation change. In that instance, the ending punctuation goes within the quotation marks. If you are in the UK, the punctuation stays on the outside.

Example: He looked at her and said, “You’re a real dork for writing a grammar blog, you know?”

See? Punctuation on the inside.


Thanks to Miriam Watkins Meyers for her text excerpts. Yes, I just happened to have her journal article next to me, cited as below:

Meyers, Miriam Watkins. “Current Generic Pronoun Usage: An Empirical Study.”
American Speech 65.3 (1990): 228-237. Web. 27 Apr. 2015



MLA Formatted Quotations and Quotation Marks — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this article, this was really useful as i’m currently writing my dissertation and was struggling with when to use speech marks and when to just cite a reference without.

    Really helpful!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: