8.3 Accuracy and Alterations in Quoted Material

‘It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of meticulous accuracy in quoting from the works of others’ (Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, p.445). When you surround a passage with quotation marks or set it in a block quotation format and provide a reference, you are claiming that the words within the quotation marks or block quotation represent exactly the words (normally along with their punctuation, capitalisation and the like) that can be found in the precise place indicated (the first sentence of this paragraph, for instance, on p.445 of the 2003 edition of the Chicago Manual of Style listed in the reference list at the end of this book). If your transcription of the quotation is inaccurate, you are falsely attributing words and thoughts to another author, and neither you nor the author you are quoting wants that to happen. The problem is, however, that errors slip into transcriptions with frightening ease even when an author is careful: for example, I first typed ‘overestimate’ instead of ‘overemphasize’ in the quotation that opens this paragraph, and then I typed ‘overemphasise’ (an automatic reflex because I am using British spelling in this book) and had to change the ‘s’ to a ‘z’ to transcribe the word correctly. When an author does not transcribe with care, quotations can become something of a disaster zone that undermines an argument via the very material that should shore it up. It is therefore absolutely essential that you check all quotations against their sources word by word and punctuation point by punctuation point to be certain that you have quoted with complete accuracy.

The need for accuracy when quoting material from sources does not mean that alterations cannot be made to the passages you quote in your thesis, but any changes that are necessary or desirable should be kept to an absolute minimum, and, although certain minor alterations can be made without any special marking or indication, most changes to quoted material must be acknowledged and in very particular ways. While an author might avoid minor but obvious errors in a source text by paraphrasing instead of quoting it, it is also permissible, for instance, for the author to correct silently (without acknowledging the change, that is) minor errors such as spelling, unclosed quotation marks or parentheses and a missing full stop. Alternatively, the Latin word sic meaning ‘thus,’ ‘so’ or ‘in this manner’ can be used in square brackets (which are discussed below) immediately after an error or oddity within a quotation, though this is usually only done if the error might mislead readers, as the wrong date in this example might: ‘The author must have begun writing her text in the 1250s [sic] immediately after discussing her visionary experiences with her spiritual advisor.’ Another option is to add either recte (Latin for ‘properly’ or ‘correctly’) or rectius (‘more properly’ or ‘more correctly’) or the English equivalent of either in square brackets immediately after the error, and include a correct alternative: ‘The author must have begun writing her text in the 1250s [recte 1350s] immediately after discussing her visionary experiences with her spiritual advisor.’

Other changes can be made within a quotation not to correct errors in the source, but to allow the quoted material to fit syntactically, typographically and logically into the surrounding text. Alterations to some elements can be made without providing an indication of the change in the quotation. A list of these elements follows:

  • Quotation marks: single quotation marks can be changed to double marks and double marks to single marks in order to correspond with the type of quotation marks used in a thesis and to represent the layers of quotation accurately. Foreign forms of quotation marks (such as « » and „ ‟) in a source should also be changed to match the forms used elsewhere in your thesis.
  • Other punctuation: a full stop or comma at the end of a quotation can be changed to a comma or full stop as required by the surrounding syntax. Foreign forms of punctuation, such as inverted exclamation and question marks (‘¡’ and ‘¿’), as well as other punctuation, such as dashes (en and em rules) and hyphens used differently than they are in your thesis, can be adjusted to match the forms used in the surrounding text.
  • Symbols and abbreviations: orthographic signs (such as the ampersand) and abbreviations can be retained in a quotation (if they are defined or clear to your readers), but, alternatively, they can be expanded for clarity or consistency with the surrounding text.
  • Initial letters: a capital at the beginning of a quotation can be changed to a lowercase letter and a lowercase letter in the same position can be changed to a capital in order to integrate the quotation into the surrounding text of your thesis, though in some styles this change should be made within square brackets (see below). If a quotation is embedded in the syntax of a sentence, it should normally begin with a lowercase letter; if it is formatted as a block quotation, it can begin with a lowercase or uppercase letter depending on whether it is a continuation of the sentence introducing it or begins a new sentence, but the first line of a verse quotation should always begin with a capital if that is what appears in the original poem. In British English, a lowercase letter tends to be used after a colon introducing a quotation, whereas in American English an uppercase letter is used in this position if the quotation forms a complete sentence.
  • Notes: both notes and note indicators in the source may be omitted in a quotation if the notes they are attached to are unnecessary to the sense; if they are required, the quotation will be best as a block quotation with the relevant note(s) included below the main quotation, and it is best if the note indicators in the quotation are distinct from the note indicators you use in the main text of your thesis. You may also add your own note(s) to a quotation, in which case they should be part of the normal series of notes in your chapter or thesis.
  • Archaic and idiosyncratic spelling and letter forms: the archaic spelling as well as the special characters used in early English texts should be retained in most quotations, as they are in the example quotations from Piers Plowman in Sections 8.1 and 8.2 above. The letters used in Old and Middle English that are no longer used in modern English are the ash (‘æ’ or ‘Æ’), which can be retained as a ligature or written as two letters (‘ae’ or ‘Ae’), the eth (‘ð’ or ‘Ð’), the thorn (‘þ’ or ‘Þ’), the wynn (‘ƿ’ or ‘Ƿ’) and the yogh (‘ȝ’ or ‘Ȝ’). The use of ‘i’ and ‘j’ as well as ‘u’ and ‘v’ in early texts also differs at times from that in modern English texts, and although these letters can be retained as well, they are often modernised, and so is ‘vv’ by changing it to ‘w’ and long ‘ʃ’ by changing it to a short ‘s.’ These changes are often made silently within a quotation, but such modernisation of sources should always be explained somewhere in the thesis (in a note, for instance, attached to the first quotation in which you have modernised the language and/or spelling).

A number of other changes can be made to quotations to facilitate their use by the author, but these alterations must be acknowledged in the quotation itself, with interpolations enclosed in square brackets (not parentheses, which are not, as a general rule, appropriate for interpolated material) and omissions marked by ellipsis points. Interpolations within square brackets might include:

  • The word sic to indicate an error in a text or something like ‘recte 1350s,’ which I used in square brackets above, to provide the correct information.
  • Glosses and definitions of foreign, difficult or potentially misleading words, as in ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote [showers sweet] | The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote [root]’ (Kolve & Olson, 1989, ‘General Prologue’ 1–2), and ‘A middle-class family might have owned only one book, but that book would often resemble an entire library in parvo [in small], with its contents both extensive and extremely varied.’ Modern equivalents or translations of this sort differ from other interpolations in that they can be placed in parentheses instead of square brackets (see Section 8.4 below).
  • Variants found in other editions, versions or manuscripts, as in ‘Many [Cambridge MS: Fell] fawcouns and faire, | Hawkis of nobill ayere’ (Casson, 1949, Lincoln MS, lines 45–46).
  • Explanations, qualification and other comments, as in ‘among these developments was the transformation of this meditation designed for readers into twin “meditational dramas” that enact that reflective experience and could well have been performed [though there is no evidence that they were], in the author’s priory perhaps, or the hall of a local gentleman, or the streets of a nearby Yorkshire community’ (Olson, 2012, p.338).
  • Grammatical changes or added words that enable better integration of the quotation and its meaning into the surrounding text and discussion, as in the following example where the plural forms ‘were’ and ‘their’ are replaced with the singular forms ‘was’ and ‘his’ and the word ‘less’ is added: ‘Roger Newton, very likely the first of the book’s scribes whose similar script and language suggest shared training, [was] paid [less] for [his] work’ (Olson, 2012, p.305). Although this sort of change can be used when necessary, it is best if it is kept to a bare minimum; in most cases, your text should be worded to work with the unadjusted quotation.
  • Changes that replace an initial capital with a lowercase letter and vice versa should in some styles (see, for instance, the rigorous method in the Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, pp.462–463) and disciplines, and particularly in legal and textual studies, be enclosed in square brackets, as the ‘A’ (an ‘a’ in the source) is in the following sentence: ‘[A]mong these developments was the transformation of this meditation designed for readers into twin “meditational dramas” that enact that reflective experience and could well have been performed, in the author’s priory perhaps, or the hall of a local gentleman, or the streets of a nearby Yorkshire community’ (Olson, 2012, p.338). For more details on initial capitalisation in quotations, see above.
  • Comments about the addition of italics to a quotation should be enclosed in square brackets if they appear in the midst of a quotation, as they do here, for instance: ‘A middle-class family might have owned only one book [italics mine], but that book would often resemble an entire library in parvo [in small], with its contents both extensive and extremely varied.’ This indicates that only the italics on one book were added by the author quoting the passage, not the italics on in parvo. When, on the other hand, you add all the italics that appear in a quotation, the acknowledgement of the italics should come at the end of the quotation along with the reference: ‘(Taylor, 2009, p.98; italics mine).’ The acknowledgement can use different wording – ‘italic font my own,’ ‘my emphasis’ etc. – but the same form should be used in all instances in a thesis. Alternatively, if all the italic font in all the quotations used in the thesis or one of its chapters is your own, this can be explained in a single comment, usually in a note attached to the first quotation that features such italic font: for example, ‘italics here, as in other quotations in this thesis (or chapter), are my own’ or, more briefly, ‘all italic font in quotations is my own.’ While italics can be added to certain words and sections in a quotation in order to emphasise them or perhaps to make the presentation of foreign words consistent with the format you use elsewhere in your thesis, quotations should not be placed entirely in italics, which are not needed or correct for marking quotations in English.
  • Question marks when added as queries to express doubt about the information provided in a quotation should be enclosed in square brackets immediately after the doubtful information, and some explanation might be added as well: ‘A massive storm hit the region in the fall of 1479 [?; or perhaps 1480] and appears to have resulted in extensive flooding.’ Please note that an exclamation mark enclosed in square brackets is neither an effective nor a professional way in which to comment on a quotation and should be avoided.

Like additions to quotations, omissions from quotations may be made for a number of reasons, such as eliminating errors, removing words and punctuation that do not work syntactically with the surrounding text and avoiding words or technical details that are not necessary to the argument and might actually distract the reader from the main point(s) you want to make via the quotation. In all such cases, the omission should be indicated by three stops known as ellipsis points, with the stops either separated by spaces (. . .), which is the format I have employed in this book, or closed up without spaces (…), but other punctuation sometimes appears along with the ellipsis points and sometimes not. The practices for using ellipsis points are, in fact, surprisingly various and complicated, as the Chicago Manual of Style’s detailed description of three different methods – the ‘three-dot method,’ the ‘three-or-four-dot method’ and the ‘rigorous method’ – makes clear (2003, p.459). The first is the simplest, the second a refinement of the first and the third a refinement of both, and ‘elements from each can be combined to suit the needs of a particular work or the preference of an author, as long as a consistent pattern is maintained throughout the work’ (Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, p.459). Other style guides tend to do just that – use combinations of the three methods, that is – so instead of outlining here the three methods (see instead the Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, pp.459–463, where they are discussed in detail), I have summarised the common acceptable practices and noted the most important variations and exceptions:

  • If the omission represented by ellipsis points occurs within a single sentence, the three points usually appear without any other punctuation: ‘for the most part monasteries must indeed have been among the finest of places . . . in late medieval England’ (Olson, 2012, p.291). Any unneeded punctuation is generally omitted along with the missing words, but a comma, colon or semicolon can be retained from the source if it is needed for syntax or readability; it should appear either before or after the three ellipsis points, depending on its placement in the original passage.

Like additions to quotations, omissions from quotations may be made for a number of reasons, such as eliminating errors, removing words and punctuation that do not work syntactically with the surrounding text and avoiding words or technical details that are not necessary to the argument and might actually distract the reader from the main point(s) you want to make via the quotation. In all such cases, the omission should be indicated by three stops known as ellipsis points, with the stops either separated by spaces (. . .), which is the format I have employed in this book, or closed up without spaces (…), but other punctuation sometimes appears along with the ellipsis points and sometimes not. The practices for using ellipsis points are, in fact, surprisingly various and complicated, as the Chicago Manual of Style’s detailed description of three different methods – the ‘three-dot method,’ the ‘three-or-four-dot method’ and the ‘rigorous method’ – makes clear (2003, p.459). The first is the simplest, the second a refinement of the first and the third a refinement of both, and ‘elements from each can be combined to suit the needs of a particular work or the preference of an author, as long as a consistent pattern is maintained throughout the work’ (Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, p.459). Other style guides tend to do just that – use combinations of the three methods, that is – so instead of outlining here the three methods (see instead the Chicago Manual of Style, 2003, pp.459–463, where they are discussed in detail), I have summarised the common acceptable practices and noted the most important variations and exceptions:

  • If the omission represented by ellipsis points occurs within a single sentence, the three points usually appear without any other punctuation: ‘for the most part monasteries must indeed have been among the finest of places . . . in late medieval England’ (Olson, 2012, p.291). Any unneeded punctuation is generally omitted along with the missing words, but a comma, colon or semicolon can be retained from the source if it is needed for syntax or readability; it should appear either before or after the three ellipsis points, depending on its placement in the original passage.
  • Ellipsis points should not normally be enclosed in square brackets – since ellipsis points represent an omission, there is usually no need to mark them as an addition or interpolation as well. However, if the text quoted already contains ellipsis points and you also need to use them to indicate your own omissions, the ellipsis points that you add should be enclosed in square brackets, and if there is any doubt as to why, the difference can be explained (in a note perhaps or in the main text) in association with the first relevant quotation. In addition, if you are using ellipsis points to indicate missing or illegible text in the source quoted, enclosing the ellipsis points used to mark your own omissions in square brackets can be an effective mode of distinction.
  • When poetry is quoted as embedded text, omissions can be marked in the same way as they are in prose quotations. Similarly, ellipsis points should be used when part of a line of displayed poetry is omitted:

    For if heuene be on þis erþe . . . ,

    It is in cloistre or in scole, by manye skiles I fynde.

                        (Kane & Donaldson, 1975, X.305–306)

When the beginning of the first line of poetry quoted is omitted, however, no ellipsis points are used; the omission is instead indicated by the position of the first word of the quotation (see the second block quotation from Piers Plowman in Section 8.1 above). When one or more whole lines of poetry are omitted from a block quotation, a full line of spaced dots (without any text) can be used to mark the omission.

  • When a displayed quotation contains more than one paragraph and you need to mark the omission of intervening paragraphs, ellipsis points should be added to the end of the paragraph preceding the omission. If you need to omit the first part of a paragraph in a block quotation, you should place the ellipsis points immediately before the beginning of the retained text, but after any paragraph indentation.

As you are working at choosing, integrating and altering quotations for your thesis, always keep in mind that correct English sentence structure and syntax must be observed at all times, and that quotations should always be logically integrated into surrounding text despite any changes or omissions. It is also essential that the changes or omissions you make to a quotation do not completely alter or otherwise misrepresent or distort the meaning of the original: the omission from the Olson quotation in the first of the bulleted items immediately above is questionable, for instance (compare its meaning with that of the complete sentence in the second of the block quotations in Section 8.2 above).

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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