Direct Versus Indirect Quotations

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What are direct quotations?

Direct quotations are the exact words of someone else woven into your writing. Whether it is a quote from a written piece or a speech, the use of direct quotations can spice up your written content, tie in what you are writing about to something specific or provide examples that strengthen a thought or idea. When used correctly and sparingly, direct quotes make an impression that strengthens your words. Direct quotes are always offset with quotation marks. (See the proper way to punctuate and present direct quotes toward the bottom of this article.) Below is an example of a direct quote:

Example: In the words of George Washington Carver, “When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

What are indirect quotations?

Indirect quotes are paraphrases or summaries of the words of someone else worked into the text of your writing. Indirect quotations can add information that strengthens your content in many of the same ways as direct quotations. Essentially, indirect quotes carry the meaning of a speaker or writer’s original words without using the exact words. Indirect quotes are not offset by quotation marks. Below is an example of an indirect quote:

Example: George Washington Carver believed that the world takes notice when your everyday actions are done extraordinarily.(Paraphrase of the previous example of a direct quote.)

Giving credit where it is due

Whether you are using a direct or an indirect quotation, you must always give credit to the person whose words you are using. This is easily achieved by including the author or speaker’s name as a lead-in to the quote for both direct and indirect quotations. When you do not give the appropriate credit where it is due, you are plagiarizing. Below are a few ways you can lead in to both types of quotations:

  • According to [insert author or speaker],
  • [Insert author or speaker] says/said (claims/claimed, reports/reported),
  • In the words of [insert author or speaker],

Choosing which to use

While both types of quotations are useful to add more color to your writing, you might sometimes struggle with which to use. Sometimes an original author or speaker’s words are so powerful that using an indirect quote where you are summarizing or paraphrasing reduces the effectiveness or loses the passion, conviction or strength with which the words are used. In these cases, stick with the direct quote to have the maximum effect on your readers. Similarly, if you are trying to paraphrase or summarize something that is confusing or that you do not understand well enough to do so, use the direct quote instead so that the meaning is not lost in your translation of the words.

Another important consideration is the type of writing you are doing. If you are writing something scientific, the general practice is to use direct quotations as little as possible. Instead, paraphrasing is preferred except in cases where the information is very precise, eloquent or peculiar and using the direct quote is warranted. Similarly, if you are writing about literature, direct quotes are often preferred because the exact words are what you are discussing or to what you are referring.

Shifting between the two types

When incorporating quotations, it is okay to use a mix of both direct and indirect quotes. In fact, it is even advised to do so. Using all direct quotes or all indirect quotes can create bland, repetitive content. Variety always makes your content more engaging, so use your best judgment. With repeated use of both types, you start to develop a feeling for when one type of quotation is better to use over the other. Indirect quotes are useful when you simply need to summarize events, processes or details from an original source. Direct quotations are useful for incorporating coined phrases and passionate, precise or flavorful words of someone else. A good mix of both (without overusing them) is an effective way to strengthen your words. If you focus on the reason you choose to incorporate a certain quotation, it can help you decide which to use.

Overusing quotations

It is easy to overuse both types of quotations; however, you should avoid doing so in every situation. Writing is about conveying your thoughts, ideas, knowledge and more through your own words. When you use too many words from the mouths of others, it is no longer your own work. You might have it in your own words, but you run the risk of patchwork plagiarizing, where you piece the words of others together and present them as your own. Strive to incorporate only those quotes, both direct and indirect, that strengthen, back up or demonstrate an idea or thought.

Direct quotes and quotation marks

All direct quotes are offset with quotation marks. It is important to make sure that you use a quotation mark both at the beginning and at the end of any direct quote. Just remember that quotation marks are always used as pairs; you cannot use an opening one without using a closing one. The quotation marks typically go outside the sentence-ending punctuation, but this is sometimes altered based on the preference of an official or formal style guide, where a particular way to cite requires a different format. If you are unsure, make sure to check the applicable style guide, such as MLA or APA style guide, to always use quotation marks in the correct way.

Direct quotes and commas

Direct quotes are often offset by commas following the last word that precedes the quotation mark when an introduction is used that is similar to those shown in the “Giving credit where it is due” section of this article. It indicates a pause before the words of someone else are used. Likewise, a comma follows when the sentence continues after the direct quotation has ended. Consider the following example:

Example: Sun-Tzu said long ago, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” which drives home the fact that staying aware of your enemies can give you a distinct tactical advantage during times of war.

Direct quotes of complete sentences

When a direct quote is a complete sentence, the first word of the quote is always capitalized. Consider the below example:

Example: Sir Winston Churchill stated, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Direct quotes of sentence fragments

When a direct quote is a sentence fragment or just the portion of a complete sentence, the first word of the quotation is not capitalized unless it begins a sentence. A comma is not always necessary to offset the quote. See the following example:

Example: Anyone who has recently fallen in love probably agrees with Dr. Suess that “reality is better than your dreams” when sleeping proves difficult.

Direct quotes and interruptions

Sometimes you might choose to present a direct quotation with the credit given to the original author or speaker in the center of a sentence. In this case, the beginning of the first part of the quotation requires a capitalized first word; however, when the quotation is continued after an interruption, the first word is not capitalized. Consider the below example:

Example: “A little learning,” according to English poet Alexander Pops, “is a dangerous thing.”

Direct quotes with grammatical errors

There are times when what you are directly quoting has a grammatical error. When this occurs you should never correct the error; use the quote exactly as it is written or spoken in its original form. The use of the Latin “sic” is used to show your readers that the mistake is part of the original representation of the quote and not your own mistake. Place “sic” within brackets immediately following any grammatical or spelling error, as shown in the below example:

Example: According to Emmitt Smith, a former NFL running back, “The Packers don’t has [sic] a running game.”

Block quotations (direct)

Sometimes what you wish to directly quote is a long passage or narrative that when shortened loses its meaning or effectiveness. A block quotation is generally considered any direct quote that is four or more lines. Instead of offsetting these quotes with quotation marks, you double space between the lead-in to the quote and the quote itself, and indent it about one inch (or 10 spaces) from the left margin. To introduce the block quote, you can summarize very succinctly in one brief sentence what the quote contains or use a simpler lead-in, whichever the context of your piece dictates. If a parenthetical reference is included, it is added as the last line of the indented block on a line of its own. If the lead-in is a complete sentence, use a colon at the end of it; if it is not a complete sentence, use a comma. Consider the following example:

Example: One of the most famous speeches in history is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Below is a power excerpt from that speech that is full of passion and powerful in its prose in asking for peaceful approaches in the struggle for equality: (lead-in)

The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. (Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963)