2012-01-24 11:23:39A guide for quotation
Tom Curtis


At the suggestion of John Hartz, I offer the following guide to quotation.

The first thing that must be understood is the seriousness of the issue.  In the humanities, deliberate misquotation is veiwed in the same way as deliberate falsification of experimental results in science.  It is that serious an issue.  Obviously misquotation due to negligence or not understanding the conventions is viewed in the same way as sloppy experimental proceedure.  To underline the seriousness of the issue, the missquote that first raised my awareness of the problem is as serious, in my mind as the Wegman plagiarism issue (excepting only the intended audience in that the Wegman report was a report to Congress, while SkS is only a blog).  The only reason I can continue to associate with SkS given the extent of misquoting involved is my conviction that the misquoting was done in error.

Having underlined how important this is, we now turn to the rules which should be followed:


1)  The sole purpose of quotation is to accurately report the opinions of another person (or occasionaly yourself):

That being the case, you must take every measure to ensure the quotation does accurately report the opinion being quoted.  To that end, you must ensure that surrounding passages do not contain material which significantly alters the meaning or interpretation of quoted words.   You should also ensure that quoted passage does not have ironical tone, or rhetorical effect such that quoting it alone would misrepresent the quoted author.  Further, you must ensure that the context in which you quote the passage does not change the meaning or interpretation of the quoted passage.  Checking for context is a double sided check, for not only can absent context change meaning, but so can the new context into which things are quoted.  This is particularly important with technical terms, whose common meaning can sometimes be almost polar opposites of their technical meaning.  It is also particularly true  of quotations from different periods, in which words can have significantly different meanings from their current usage.


We use direct quotation rather than indirect quotation or paraphrasing either so that our readers can verify for themselves what was said, or as a rhetorical device to indicate the accuracy of our report of anothers opinion.  Therefore, it is important to carefully distinguish between direct and indirect reports of anothers opinions.  Hence,

2)  All direct quotation should be enclosed within quotation marks, and only direct quotation should be enclosed within quotation marks.  

It is, of course, necessary occasionally to ammend quotations for grammar, spelling, or to make things clearer either because explanatory context has been lost, or because the target audience does not have the knowledge base of the original audience of the quote.  All such ammendments must be noted by enclosing them in square brackets { [xxx] }.  This even applies within words.  If you correct spelling, or capitalize an initial letter because your quote makes it the start of a new sentence (which will only ever be true for the very first word in the quoted passage), the square brackets will enclose only the ammended letters, not the entire word.  Ideally, words inserted for explanation should be included in square brackets after the word that they explain, but in less formal situations it is sometimes acceptable to insert them as a substitute for the word explained.  The later is particularly true when replacing personal pronouns with names for clear identification, but very rarely the case if explaining a technical term.

If the alteration is an alteration of style, say be bolding or underlining text, it is impossible to enclose just the ammendment within square brackets.  Therefore, you should note all changes in style, either in square brackets immediately after the change, or in round brackets { (xxx) } immediately after the quote.  If the original author made use of changes in style for emphasis or other reasons, you should note that fact in round brackets immediately after the end of the quote.  If you also have made changes of style in a passage in which the original author used style changes, your should note at the end of the quote that style changes are the original authors, except where noted, and then note all style changes by you within the quote using square brackets.  If your change of style alters the entire quoted passage rather than a particular portion of it, there is no need to note the change.

If you are quoting a foreign language, you should always retain the quote in the original language, and then provide a translation. The method of doing so depends critically on context.  In more formal writtings, the original text should be provided first, and in the main body of your article/comment.  The translation should then be provided after the original quote in the main text or in a footnote.  In less formal writtings, which would include comments but not articles and blogposts, it is acceptable to provide the translation in the main text, and the original in a footnote.  In extremely informal contexts (internal forum) or where you cannot locate the original, you should provide the translation and carefully note immediately after the quote that it is a translation, and where possibly also noting who translated the quote.  (You should never really on a google translation).

Ommissions should be marked by elipsis { ... }.  There are a few, minor exceptions.  Obviously where the text is ammended rather than simply ommitted, the prior rule applies.  Also, numbers or marks indicating footnotes, and references enclosed in brackets may be ommitted without elipsis.  Further, where you have truncated the start of a sentence or the end of a sentence, and the truncated sentence still makes a grammatically coherent whole, you can allow either the ammended capitalized letter (for initial ommissions) or the placement of the punctuation mark outside of the quotation marks for terminating ommissions to indicate the ommission.   That exception does mean that only original punctuation should appear inside the quotation marks (unless enclosed in square brackets).

The purpose of these apparantly anal rules is to clearly flag to the reader where omissions or changes have been made so that they can double check that the intended meaning has not been changed by the omissions or ammndments.  Therefore, because paragraphing is so important to context, and hence interpretation, we should also use the additional rules for omitted text that:

a)  Any omitted text in a paragraph between the start of the paragraph and the quoted sentence when preceding paragraphs a quoted should be marked by elipsis;

b) Any omitted text in a paragraph between the end of the quoted section and the end of the paragraph when following paragraphs are quoted from should be marked by elipsis; and

c) Any complete paragraphs omitted between two sections of quoted text should be marked by a single elipsis seperated so as to form a complete paragraph.

In this way we clearly mark context relevant omissions to flag possible issues with context.

Occasionaly the quoted text will already contain elipsis.  In that case you should note that elipses are original except where noted in round brackets immediately after the end of the quote, and note your own elpses within the text by enclosing them in square brackets.  This is only necessary when when there are original elipses, but is acceptable in any event.

When quoting a clause or phrase rather than a sentence, it is occasionally necessary to adjust gramatical case for agreement with your initial clauses or phrases of the sentence.  In that case it is acceptable to include a few directly quoted words outside of the quotation marks if that makes it easier to construct grammatical agreement.  However, the fewer quoted words outside the quotation marks the better, and you should only use this technique if the alternative is large scale disfigurement of the quote with ammendments to ensure grammatical consistency.


3) All quotes should be immediately followed by a reference and if possible a link so that reader can check the quote in its original context.  

For this purpose, in more formal contexts (articles and blog posts) the reference should be included even if it has been previously referenced or linked in the article.  It is also important to include a complete reference (Authors name, article or book name, name of publisher, and year of publication) at least once in every blogpost or article so that reader can still check even when links go dead.  For quotations, it is also desirable to include a page number for the quotations, marked either as p. xx for a single page, or if the overflows a page boundary, using the notation pp. xx-yy.

4)  It should be clear that the purpose of these rules is complete transparancy in quotation so that the reader is not accidentally decieve, even if we have decieved ourselves.

If you bear that in mind, you will not make significant errors.  What is more, if you bear that carefully in mind, you will be able to recognize when it is appropriate to not be entirely anal about these rules.  However, the cardinal rule is that you should be more carefull rather than less carefull whenever you are in any doubt.  If you have any doubt whether leaving out that extra sentence removes necessary context, include it.  If you have any doubt as to whether the reader can determine what is original and what is not, note it (or mark it).

Beyond these four rules, there are a number of other rules related to quotation that come under the heading of style.  The proper rules for style vary with time and place, and are not, IMO, important.  Every univesity will have their own guidelines for style which you should look up and use.  Alternatively you can use the Chicago Style Manual which is very influential in the USA (partially accessible as a crib sheet online; or fully accessible online behind a paywall). 


If I have left something out, or anybody thinks one of my rules is in error, or if you would like particular examples of the application of particular rules, please let me know.