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Ron Cooley, English Faculty

Quotations

What advice do you have for incorporating quotations into an English essay?

This is very different for different disciplines. English is, of course, a quotation-heavy discipline, and we come from a tradition that really originates with biblical scholarship and scholarship of sacred texts and other cultures in which the text is considered to be the repository of knowledge, and what we're doing as critics is commenting on the text, which means you constantly have to go back to the authority of the literary text for the best possible evidence. So in terms of incorporating quotations, there are two kinds of approaches: there's the little snippet quotation that's a couple of words that flow seemlessly into your sentence, and then there's the quotation -- either a line or a long passage -- that is kind of set off as an illustration of a point you're making. And the key thing with incorporating quotations and using them effectively is making the commentary proportionate to the material you've quoted. So a quotation of five or six lines probably needs five or six lines of explanation to justify quoting that much material. A quotation of two words: probably the sentence which contains it is the explanation that's needed for that brief little quotation. You incorporate different kinds of quoted material for different purposes, but in every case you want to make the explanation and commentary that flows out of the quotation proportionate to the material you've quoted. Absolutely! That's a way to demonstrate a really high comfort level, [a] strong familiarity with the book...: incorporate individual words, one- or two-word quotations that demonstrate that the writer of the essay is in tune with the language, the style, the concerns, [and] the preoccupations of the text. Exactly. And indeed when you're quoting a longer passage, what you'll want to do in your commentary is to go back and refer to specific words or phrases that you've quoted and indicate what their significance is in the context in which they appear, [and] in relation to other things that might be in the quoted passage.