8.2 Integrating Quotations: Punctuation, Sentence Structure and Argument

Although it may be clear to you exactly how a passage you have chosen to quote relates to your research, it is not acceptable simply to quote it and expect readers to understand its relevance to your thesis: a good deal more goes into quoting sources effectively in order to illustrate, support and develop an argument. Using quotations well in terms of both the logic of a scholarly argument and the syntax of its sentences is no easy task, however, but one that poses serious challenges even for those who are completely familiar with the scholarship, methods and terminology associated with their discipline and are highly accomplished writers of English prose. For those who are already struggling with the construction of English sentences and perhaps also struggling with translating their source texts into English (see Section 8.4 below), as for those just becoming acquainted with the intricate details of previous scholarship and their own research, it can be something of a nightmare complete with brick walls and pitfalls. Quotations used in a thesis must work within the surrounding text both syntactically and logically, yet as an aspect of written style, integrating quotations is highly subjective and the problems associated with it extremely various, so it is impossible to address all situations a doctoral candidate may encounter, and no book can entirely replace experience. In the following paragraphs and examples, I have therefore focussed on certain matters that tend with considerable frequency to present particular challenges for academic and scientific authors.

It is essential that the normal and correct punctuation of your sentences be maintained as quotations are used, and some form of punctuation is often required immediately after a quotation. A sentence that finishes with a quotation must, like any other sentence, be closed with final punctuation, and a sentence that continues after the quotation it contains may require a comma or other punctuation mark immediately after the quotation. A full stop or comma that follows a quotation is usually placed inside the closing quotation mark in American English and in most fiction and journalism, whether American or British, but in British English it is sometimes placed inside and sometimes outside the closing quotation mark depending on the nature of the quotation in relation to the structure of the entire sentence (see, for instance, Butcher et al., 2006, Section 11.1.2, and Ritter, 2005, Section 9.2.3, for details).

If the guidelines provided by your university or department happen to indicate which of these two methods should be used for final punctuation associated with a quotation, follow them precisely and consistently so that the patterns you use are maintained throughout your thesis. Do recall from Section 8.1, however, that parenthetical references for embedded quotations generally precede full stops and commas. Colons, semicolons, dashes and parentheses, on the other hand, normally appear outside closing quotation marks unless they are actually present in the source you have quoted, in which case they can be included within the quotation marks. The same principle applies to question and exclamation marks, and with these bits of punctuation, placement can significantly alter the meaning of a quotation and the sentence containing it: notice, for instance, the difference between ‘He actually meant it when he said, “So without patients the hospital would run much more smoothly”?’ and ‘He actually meant it when he said, “So without patients the hospital would run much more smoothly?”’ (For further information on punctuating English prose, see Section 5.6.)

The punctuation preceding a quotation can be even more crucial than that following it because such introductory punctuation helps define the way in which readers approach and read a quotation. Often no punctuation is necessary immediately before a quotation, which is the case when the quotation is embedded in a sentence and no punctuation would be required were the entire sentence your own work, as in this example: ‘Langland optimistically claimed that “no man” entered monastic life “to carpe ne to fiȝte” (Kane & Donaldson, 1975, X.307) despite the bickering within cloister walls that other parts of his poem so brilliantly dramatise.’ The same principle applies to displayed quotations, so no punctuation is needed when writing, for instance, ‘Langland seems to consider the cloister something of a large and friendly library where no one wishes

                                                              to carpe ne to fiȝte

But al is buxomnesse þere and bokes, to rede and to lerne.

                                               (Kane & Donaldson, 1975, X.307–308)’

In other cases, nothing more than the full stop closing the preceding sentence is required before a quotation, embedded or block, if the logic of the quotation naturally follows that of the preceding sentence and can start (or already is) a sentence of its own. The following two sentences provide an example: William Langland’s view of the cloistered life as ‘buxomnesse . . . and bokes, to rede and to lerne’ (Kane & Donaldson, 1975, X.308) may well be a good deal more idealised than he himself believed possible.

Yet for the most part monasteries must indeed have been among the finest of places ‘to rede and to lerne’ in late medieval England, and for precisely the reasons Langland prioritizes: books in numbers and of a variety modern readers might find surprising, and for the most part the intellectual peace to savor them. (Olson, 2012, p.291)

Many quotations require preceding punctuation of a particular kind, however, and in a large number of cases, a comma or a colon serves the purpose. A comma is used with a variety of phrases that effectively introduce and define quotations from both written texts and direct speech, as the following examples demonstrate:

  • According to Olson (2012, p.291), ‘monasteries must indeed have been among the finest of places “to rede and to lerne” in late medieval England, and for precisely the reasons Langland prioritizes: books in numbers and of a variety modern readers might find surprising, and for the most part the intellectual peace to savor them.’
  • In an early study of the effects of chemotherapy, ‘women were shown to recover much more quickly and with fewer negative side effects when they did not receive chemotherapy as part of their treatment’ (Tabatha, 1968, p.1698).
  • Participants were asked, in Question 3 of the survey, ‘Was the domestic robot a good size for use in your apartment?’
  • ‘Whan that Aprill,’ Chaucer wrote, ‘with his shoures sote | The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote’ (Kolve & Olson, 1989, ‘General Prologue’ 1–2).
  • The first interviewee, ‘an experienced researcher and interviewer,’ helped me refine my techniques before I conducted further interviews.
  • ‘Are you sure,’ he repeated, ‘you really want to wear that tonight?’
  • ‘Well, I thought I was,’ she replied.

Although the examples I have used here do not specifically show it, a comma is suitable for introducing displayed quotations as well: for instance, since the first bulleted quotation is quite long, it could effectively be formatted as a block quotation after the parenthetical reference and comma, or the parenthetical reference could be moved to the end of the block quotation.

In many cases, however, and especially in formal English, a colon is more appropriate than a comma. A colon is often used to introduce scholarly quotations and formal speech; it is a good choice when more than one sentence or passage is quoted or when emphasis is required; and it also tends to clarify sentence structure and the line between your own text and quoted passages, and therefore to improve the clarity and legibility of a complex text. The following examples show colons used to introduce quotations:

  • Langland’s view of the cloister smacks of idealism, but it also contains precious allusions to fourteenth-century monastic book collections: ‘For in cloistre comeþ no man to carpe ne to fiȝte | But al is buxomnesse þere and bokes, to rede and to lerne’ (X.307–308).
  • The following is a transcription of my first interview: ‘INTERVIEWER: Were you able to move easily when connected to the equipment? RESPONDENT 1: Yes, most of the time, but a few of the exercises were more difficult. INTERVIEWER: Do you remember which ones presented movement problems?’
  • Taking her cue from Piers Plowman, Olson describes cloister libraries in this way: ‘for the most part monasteries must indeed have been among the finest of places “to rede and to lerne” in late medieval England, and for precisely the reasons Langland prioritizes: books in numbers and of a variety modern readers might find surprising, and for the most part the intellectual peace to savor them’ (2012, p.291).
  • In Question 3 of the survey participants were asked: ‘Was the domestic robot a good size for use in your apartment?’ Question 4 attempted to refine our understanding of any limitations perceived: ‘Was there any task the domestic robot was not able to accomplish due to its size?’
  • The results obtained in an early study of the effects of chemotherapy are of interest: ‘women were shown to recover much more quickly and with fewer negative side effects when they did not receive chemotherapy as part of their treatment’ (Tabatha, 1968, p.1698).
  • Bennett (2007, p.23) describes the four conditions as follows: ‘(1) darkness inside, (2) darkness outside, (3) artificial lighting inside and (4) daylight outside.’
  • Her tone revealed her anger, and her friend responded in kind: ‘Well, if you’re going to be that way about it, I won’t come with you at all!’

As with the comma, the colon is appropriate for introducing block quotations as well and is in fact used more often than a comma for this purpose: in the above examples, for instance, a displayed format would be especially appropriate for the first three bulleted quotations, and notice that a colon appears before each of the block quotations included in Section 8.1.

In all of the example quotations I provide above, the quotations have been integrated into the structure of a sentence or a paragraph using correct syntax and grammar, and effective punctuation is only part of this process. You will probably have your own ways of working quotations into the structure and logic of your thesis, but if any guidelines you need to follow comment on quotation practices, those comments should play a part as well. Occasionally, for instance, guidelines will request that quotations be presented in as intact a form as possible and introduced very simply (block quotations introduced with colons are a good choice for meeting such requirements), while others will allow authors more freedom in breaking quotations up into separate words and phrases in order to incorporate these fragments borrowed from sources virtually seamlessly into their own sentences. The second method produces more variety and enables an author to use quotations very selectively and precisely in developing his or her own argument, but since it also mingles the author’s text with the borrowed text, special care must be taken to ensure that all aspects of the language used in such sentences function effectively with the language quoted.

Of particular concern are pronouns and verb tenses, which (as discussed in Sections 5.4.2 and 5.4.7 above) often prove problematic even without the complication of quoting passages that may use verb tenses and pronouns that do not agree with your voice and other elements of your sentence. For example, let us say that you want to quote Langland’s passage about monastic cloisters and their libraries, but you also want to use the past tense instead of Langland’s present and to avoid the first-person pronoun ‘I,’ which will not make sense coming from your pen. To achieve this, you will need to select the words you quote very carefully, structuring the sentence to express your own intentions while retaining Langland’s original wording and meaning. Depending on exactly what you wish to convey, one of the following sentences (or another similar construction) might prove effective:

  • If there was any sort of heaven on earth in the fourteenth century, it was, according to Langland, found ‘in cloistre or in scole’; ‘no man,’ he argued, entered a monastery chock full of ‘bokes’ and learning opportunities simply ‘to carpe’ or ‘fiȝte’ (Kane & Donaldson, 1975, X.306–308).
  • Langland described monastic life in the fourteenth century in idealistic terms, claiming that ‘no man’ came to the cloister ‘to carpe’ or ‘fiȝte’ and insisting, despite other passages of Piers Plowman to the contrary, that the monastery was a place of ‘buxomnesse . . . and bokes’ where a person’s desire ‘to rede and to lerne’ could be fulfilled (Kane & Donaldson, 1975, X.306–308).
  • Via his many ‘skiles,’ his own schooling and what must have been frequent visits to monastic book collections while writing Piers Plowman, Langland enjoyed a positive perspective of the ‘cloistre’ as a setting not only free from conflict, but also blessed with ‘buxomnesse . . . and bokes’ and ample opportunities ‘to rede and to lerne’ (Kane & Donaldson, 1975, X.306–308).

Always take the extra time when you use such quotation-rich sentences to ensure that you maintain agreement (of nouns and pronouns, nouns and verbs etc.; see also Sections 5.4.2 and 5.4.3) between the elements of your own prose and those of the integrated quotations, adjusting your wording wherever necessary to establish an effective overall sentence structure.

PRS Tip: Few aspects of scholarly writing are more frustrating than discovering the perfect passage in the work of a renowned scholar, quoting it in your own text and then realising that your readers (in this case your supervisor and other members of your thesis committee) simply do not understand its significance in relation to your methods, results or overall argument. In most cases, the fault lies with neither the quotation nor your argument, but with the manner in which you have connected the two. The trick to resolving this problem is to be utterly pedantic in thinking about and explaining the connection you envision. Start by writing something like ‘The results I achieved are supported by the study of Jones (2013, p.768), who reports a similar trend’ or ‘My understanding of the poem is shared by Pearsall (1997, p.43), who explains the author’s meaning in this way.’ Such an introduction sets the stage for the quotation, which can then follow immediately (with an intervening colon in each of these examples). In many cases, you will also want to discuss the quotation and its significance further, highlighting in the following sentences the points most important for your work, itemising shared ideas or conclusions and explaining how your own thinking or results differ from what you have quoted. Once you have surrounded the quotation with clear explanations and meaningful elaborations, you can go back and work at making your sentences more stylistically pleasing and eloquent if you wish, but remember that the key aim is for your readers to understand why you have used the quotation and how it contributes to your argument. Keep in mind as well that the professional proofreaders at PRS are extremely familiar with scholarly practices for quoting sources and, as readers of a great deal of academic and scientific prose, they have encountered many different ways of effectively integrating quotations in formal English writing. A PRS proofreader may therefore be able to suggest techniques for introducing quotations and clarifying their significance that you have not encountered or imagined, and he or she will certainly be able to ensure that the sentences you write around any given quotation are grammatically correct and clearly communicate your intended meaning to your readers.

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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