How to quote sources in an essay

Quoting is one of three options for correctly making use of someone else’s ideas. The other two methods are paraphrasing and summarizing.

What is a quote?

A quote is when you literally copy a passage of someone else’s words, whether it be a short phrase, a sentence or a small paragraph.

Example of a quote:
“As natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favourable variations, it can produce no great or sudden modification; it can act only by very short and slow steps” (Darwin, 1859, p. 510).

Where to begin with quotes

You will not set out to find quotes. They will be an incidental part of your findings during the literature review stage of your essay or paper.

The literature review involves analyzing the extant literature to find relevant sources that help with defining concepts, supporting your ideas or providing alternate views.

This analysis and processing of the available literature is a key part of what you will be assessed on, so it is vital that you evaluate each source carefully. During this stage, you may identify certain sources or passages of text that will add value to your own essay.

It is these sources or passages of text that will end up being summarized, paraphrased and quoted in your essay. Therefore, you should keep a careful record of your sources and take note of particular passages that may be useful quotes later on.

Did you know?

You can check your paper or thesis for plagiarism in less than 10 minutes? It is safe and reliable!

Do the check

Three reasons for quoting

1. You can use a quote to define a concept

In the 21st century, computer users are becoming increasingly concerned about dangers such as identity theft and hacking. “Hacking is an attempt to exploit a computer system or a private network inside a computer. Simply put, it is the unauthorised access to or control over computer network security systems for some illicit purpose” (Times Syndication Service, 2018).

2. You can use a quote because paraphrasing would diminish the quality of the original text or the idea

Immigration rights are becoming increasingly important in 21st century politics. Indeed, political activist Angela Davis recently stated: “the major civil rights issue of the 21st century is the issue of immigrant rights. Not only in Europe or the United States, but everywhere — from South America to Africa and Australia” (Mineo, 2018).

3. You can use a quote to provide evidence or support an argument

Elizabeth Bennet shows that her respect for society’s hierarchy has a limit, as she disregards propriety in favour of speaking in defence of herself toward the end of the book: “I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me” (Austen, 1813, p. 313).

How to quote

There are three main ways to introduce quotes in your essay or paper. Here are some examples:

Introduce the author, followed by the quote:

According to Levring (2018), support for the EU in Denmark is growing, and “A membership referendum held today would be backed by 55 percent of Danish voters.”

Incorporate the quote into your paragraph:

Many European nations have shown increasing support of the EU in the wake of the so-called “Brexit” vote. In Denmark for example, “A membership referendum held today would be backed by 55 percent of Danish voters” (Levring, 2018).

Introduce the study or article itself:

In his 2018 article “Brexit Triggers a Surge in Danish Backing to Stay Inside the EU,“ Levring stated that “A membership referendum held today would be backed by 55 percent of Danish voters.”

How long should a quote be?

The use of quotes does not show original thinking, so you should always try to keep a quote as short as possible, preferably no longer than a few sentences.

In academic writing, it is preferable to use quotes sparingly, so there is no specific standard regarding minimum or maximum word count. However, a quote of more than 40 words is considered long. In this case, it is most often better to summarize the information rather than quote.

Shortening a quote

You can also shorten a quote; for example, you might replace a redundant or irrelevant part of a quote with ellipses (…). If shortening a quote, be careful not to take it out of context. Do not use a shortened quote from a source that otherwise contradicts or does not agree with the context as evidence.

Example of a shortened quote

Original quote:
While some geneticists favour the theory of a single mass exodus from Africa approximately 60,000 years ago, director of paleoanthropology at the University of Tubingen, Katerina Harvati, is one among many who argue for multiple migrations: “Our previous work found that multiple dispersals, with the first one being older than the 50,000 to 70,000 [years-ago] migration, are most compatible with the pattern of both cranial and genetic variation observed among people today” (Boissoneault, 2018).
Shortened quote:
While some geneticists favour the theory of a single mass exodus from Africa approximately 60,000 years ago, director of paleoanthropology at the University of Tubingen, Katerina Harvati, is one among many who argue for multiple migrations: “Our previous work found that multiple dispersals . . . are most compatible with the pattern of both cranial and genetic variation observed among people today” (Boissoneault, 2018).

As you can see, the shortened quote is more to the point, but remains in context.

This example is also useful to see how to add text to a quote. This is only to be done when the original quote clearly misses a word that should be there.

In this case, [years-ago] has been added as the speaker forgot to include this, but the reader needs the additional words to clearly understand the sentence.

How to block quote

If you have found a longer quote that simply must be used in its entirety and not paraphrased or shortened, you will need to format it as a block of indented text, i.e. a block quote. This is most common in research about literature or poetry, where detailed analysis of the original text may be required and your readers will need to see examples.

When to block quote according to citation style
Citation styleAPAMLAHarvardChicago
When to block quoteQuotes longer than 40 wordsQuotes of prose longer than four lines
Quotes of poetry/verse longer than three lines
Quotes longer than 30 wordsQuotes longer than 100 words
Example of a block quote (APA style):

Tolkien favours the use of long sentences and detailed descriptions that envelop the reader in the fictional world of his creation. Indeed, in some cases, Tolkien’s sentences are so long they form a paragraph of their own:

To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking-stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more. (Tolkien, 1937, p. 16)

If you are using MLA format, we have written an extensive guide to formatting MLA block quotes.

How to cite a quote

All direct quotes (and paraphrased ideas) must include a citation of the original source. If you do not cite the quotes used, you risk committing plagiarism and this has serious consequences.

The way you cite a source depends on the citation style for your essay or paper. It is important to be aware of the specific rules for quoting according to the citation style you are required to use.

Examples of in-text citations:

APA style:
A famous soccer player always said, “playing soccer with each other on a beautiful Sunday afternoon is the greatest thing there is” (Sneijder, 2013, pp. 2–3).
MLA:
A famous soccer player always said, “playing soccer with each other on a beautiful Sunday afternoon is the greatest thing there is” (Sneijder 2-3).
Harvard:
A famous soccer player always said, “playing soccer with each other on a beautiful Sunday afternoon is the greatest thing there is” (Sneijder, 2013).
Chicago A:
A famous soccer player always said, “playing soccer with each other on a beautiful Sunday afternoon is the greatest thing there is.”1

Sometimes the differences between how to cite are very subtle, while other citation styles vary significantly. To learn more, read this article about in-text citations.

When you’re citing a quote from a paper with multiple authors, the way of citing changes slightly. When using the APA style you can follow this guide on how to cite a source with multiple authors.

How many quotes should you use

As using a large number of quotes does not increase the readability of your essay, it is wise to limit the frequency and occurrence. Plus, if you use too many quotes, you may appear lazy, as though you do not understand the source properly or like you did not read the entire text.

Most academic sources recommend that quotes comprise roughly 10% of your essay; we advise you to aim for 5% or less. Therefore, you should limit the use of quotes to only when necessary. Your own voice should always be dominant in your paper.

The subject of study also has an impact on how many quotes you use. For example, more quotes will be required in humanities research compared with scientific study, which typically focuses more on summarizing or experiments and results.

Be sure to check with your university to see whether there is a specific percentage of quotes that must be adhered to in your essay or paper.

How to paraphrase

Quoting is just one way you can use the ideas of other researchers in your essay. A tool you will use with even more frequency is paraphrasing, which involves stating someone else’s idea in your own words.

When you encounter a long piece of text or even an entire study that you wish to use to support your research, you can also summarize the information.

Checklist: Quoting correctly

0 / 9

Well done!

The use of quotes in your dissertation should be perfect! Now you can use our other checklists to make your thesis even better.

See all other checklists Return to checklist

Is this article helpful?
Courtney Gahan

Courtney has a Bachelor in Communication and a Master in Editing and Publishing. She has worked as a freelance writer and editor since 2013, and joined the Scribbr team as an editor in June 2017. She loves helping students and academics all over the world improve their writing (and learning about their research while doing so!).

Comment or ask a question.