How To Modify Quotes In An Essay

What punctuation should be used when words are inserted or altered in a direct quotation?

When writers insert or alter words in a direct quotation, square brackets—[ ]—are placed around the change. The brackets, always used in pairs, enclose words intended to clarify meaning, provide a brief explanation, or to help integrate the quote into the writer’s sentence.  A common error writers make is to use parentheses in place of brackets.

What punctuation should be used when words are inserted or altered in a direct quotation?

When writers insert or alter words in a direct quotation, square brackets—[ ]—are placed around the change. The brackets, always used in pairs, enclose words intended to clarify meaning, provide a brief explanation, or to help integrate the quote into the writer’s sentence.  A common error writers make is to use parentheses in place of brackets.

How are square brackets used around clarifying or explanatory words?

Let’s look at an example:

Quotation with brackets used correctly around a clarifying word:

“It [driving] imposes a heavy procedural workload on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107). [1]

Note: Brackets are placed around the inserted word in this example to let the reader know that ‘driving’ clarifies the meaning of the pronoun ‘it.’

Quotation with parentheses incorrectly used in place of brackets:

“It (driving) imposes a heavy procedural workload on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107).

Note: Parentheses are used incorrectly in place of brackets in this example, making the inserted word look like it could be part of the original text.

Let’s look at another example:

Quotation with brackets used correctly around an explanatory insert:

“[D]riving is not as automatic as one might think; in fact, it imposes a heavy procedural workload [visual and motor demands] on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107).

Note: Brackets are placed around the inserted words in this example to provide further explanation of the “procedural workload” discussed in the original text.

Quotation with parentheses incorrectly used in place of brackets:

“[D]riving is not as automatic as one might think; in fact, it imposes a heavy procedural workload (visual and motor demands) on cognition that . . . leaves little processing capacity available for other tasks” (Salvucci and Taatgen 107).

Note: Parentheses are used incorrectly in place of brackets in this example, making the inserted words look like they are part of the original text.

How are square brackets used to help integrate a quote properly?

Let’s look at an example:

Original direct quotation beginning with an upper case letter:

“The heavy cognitive workload of driving suggests that any secondary task has the potential to affect driver behavior” (Salvucci and Taatgen 108).

Integrated quotation with brackets used correctly to indicate a change in letter case:

Salvucci and Taatgen propose that “[t]he heavy cognitive workload of driving suggests that any secondary task has the potential to affect driver behavior” (108).

Note: Brackets are placed around the lower-case letter‘t’ to indicate that the letter case has been changed. The quotation is introduced by a signal phrase, which makes the quote an integral part of the writer’s sentence; as a result of this syntactical change, the upper case ‘T’ in the original is changed to a lower case letter.

Let’s look at another example:

Original direct quotation written in the past tense:

“Not coincidentally, drivers have been increasingly engaging in secondary tasks while driving” (Salvucci and Taatgen 68).

Note: The authors’ words appear in the past tense in the original text.

Quotation with brackets used correctly to indicate a change in verb tense:

“Not coincidentally, drivers [are] increasingly engaging in secondary tasks while driving” (Salvucci and Taatgen 68).

Note: Brackets are placed around the word ‘are’ to indicate that the verb has been changed to the present tense, which is the preferred tense for most writing in MLA style.

A word of caution: Bracketed insertions may not be used to alter or add to the quotation in a way that inaccurately or unfairly represents the original text. Quite simply, do not use bracketed material in a way that twists the author’s meaning.

Bracket use: Quick Summary

DoDon't
Use brackets to enclose inserted words intended to clarify meaning within a quotation.Use parentheses when inserting words into a quotation.
Use brackets to enclose inserted words intended to provide a brief explanation within a quotation.Use parentheses to enclose a change in letter case or verb tense when integrating a quote into your paper.
Use brackets to enclose a change in letter case or verb tense when integrating a quote into your paper.Use bracketed material in a way that twists the author's meaning.

 

[1] Salvucci, Dario D., and Niels A. Taatgen. Multitasking Minds. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 20 Feb. 2012.

    An assigning editor's comments that a story needs some quotes is a complaint about inadequate reporting, not a cry for typographic relief. 
    When we put those little marks around words in a story, we are telling the reader that the words are special, that they deserve special attention. 
    Many of the rules that follow are based on the premise that quotes should be carefully selected to stand on their hind legs and sing. And because they deserve special attention, they deserve careful handling by reporters and editors. Given that premise, these rules prevail in this course, at most publications and for most good writing. 



    1. One man, one quote: Do not use more than one attribution for the same quote. 


    2. Long-winded quotes: When you break a long quote into separate paragraphs, put closing quote marks only on the last paragraph. 

Example:

    In “Atomic War or Peace,” Albert Einstein wrote: 
    “The release of atomic energy has not created anew problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one. 
    “One could say that it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively. As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable. 
    “That is not an attempt to say when it will come,but only that it is sure to come. That was true before the atomic bomb was made. What has been changed is the destructiveness of war.”


     3. Pesky parentheses:Avoid* inserting parenthetical words and phrases in quotes. If a quote is not  understandable without parenthetical explanation, it probably should be a paraphrase rather than a direct quote. If a speaker has used a pronoun for a proper name, don't automatically remove the pronoun and insert the proper name in parentheses on the assumption that the reader is stupid. 

Example: 

    “(Bill) was having a bad day,” the professor said. 

    Give the reader a break. If, in the context of the story, the antecedent of the pronoun is clear, leave it. The insertion of parentheses in quotes should be the exception rather than the rule. 

*By the way, “avoid” is a nice way of my saying “Don't do it — ever!” If you find a need to put something in parentheses, it means that the writer hasn't set up the quote as well as it should. So, either:

A. Set up the quote in the precediing paragraph (by introducing the person or the issue that caused the used of the parenthetical word or words), or

B. Paraphrase the quote that requires the parenthetical insert.

Do one or the other, always!



    4. Say who's saying it —again: When moving from a partial quote to a complete quote from the same speaker, close the partial quote, start a new paragraph and re-attribute the complete quote: 

Example: 

    He described the huddle as “an American football ritual in which the players show their rear ends to a crowd before a play.”
    “After a successful play,” he said, “another ritual demands that the players pat one another on the rear end to demonstrate their boyish glee.” 

    Also note that because the partial quote in the first paragraph is not a complete sentence, it does not begin with a capital letter. 



    5. Quick “quote, unquote”: Don't overdo partial quotes. Partial quotes, as any quotes, should be special. If you run into too many of them, remove all but the “very special” ones — the ones that give special emphasis or are extremely strong. (See #7 below). 


    6. Always attribute a quote: Never assume that the reader makes the connection between an allusion to a source in one sentence and the quote that follows: 

Wrong: 
    Mortis has used the surgical procedure for more than a decade. 
     “I have experienced remarkable success with that simple technique.” 

    We refer to this as an “orphan quote.” Always get the attribution tag into the quoted sentence. 

Correct: 
    Mortis has used the surgical procedure for more than a decade. 
    “I have experienced remarkable success with that simple technique,” he said. 

 



    7. Deja vu all over again? Watch for stutter or parrot quotes, and be ready to eliminate them. Stutter quotes repeat the words or intent of an adjacent paraphrase: 

Example: 

    Smith has used the surgical procedure for more than a decade.
    “I have been using that procedure for more than 10 years,” he said. 



    8. Each to its own: In conversation or dialogue, place each speaker's quotes in separate paragraphs. Do not run two or more speakers' quotes into the same paragraph, no matter how short. 


    9. Q: No quotes on some quotes? A: Righto!: Quotation marks are not needed in lengthy question-and-answer formats so long as the questions and answers are clearly marked Q: and A. (See AP Stylebook). 


    10. A “quipu” for quotes?: Unfamiliar or coined words may be placed within quotation marks on first use, after (or before) which the coined word should be defined.(But this technique should be used only on rare occasions.) On subsequent references in the same story, don't use quote marks. 


    11. Quotes in quotes: For quotes within quotes, use single quote marks, both opening and closing, for the internal quote. If both quotes end together, you would end with a single quote mark and double quotes marks. 

Example: 

    He said, “The surgeon called it ‘just a simple technique.’” 


    12. In (period and comma); out (everything else, unless...): Periods and commas always go inside closing quotes. Other punctuation marks go inside if they apply only to the quoted matter, outside if the punctuation applies to the full sentence. 


    13. “Change quotes?” you ask. “Almost, uh, never,” he said: In this class and at The University Daily Kansan, quotes appear exactly as they are said (with some rare exceptions). The exceptions are simple: the “uhs” and “ers” we all use as pauses to gather our thoughts are deleted (otherwise, our stories would be filled with them. Besides, readers don't really hear them.). Also, there are those “glides” and the such, as with “gonna” for “going to” and “wanna” for “want to.” In those cases, we'd write “going to” or “want to” (unless you're writing in the vernacular, something addressed below).

What about writing in the vernacular — using slang and phrasing to reflect a person's personality, upbringing or geographic influences. For example, when writing about a cowboy, you might want to write “Pahd-nuh” instead of “partner.” That's OK, but be careful. Make sure you still treat the subjects with respect. But, if in doing so, the quotes inadvertantly reflect poorly on the speakers in any way, don't do it.

We've had incidents in the past (and I've observed them in other newspapers) in which the vernacular has been used with athletes, particularly African-American or Latin American athletes, and not with others in the same story. Also, the vernacular tends to show up in stories about lower-income groups (i.e., the homless or people living in the inner city). That, simply, is wrong. And in other cases, we'll fix the little gaffes by the advantaged, but not the disadvantaged (such as the homeless or people in inner-city neighborhoods).. That's wrong, too. We should treat everyone the same, every time, all the time.. Apply rules evenly and fairly.

And what about grammatical errors? Simple. If you've got a good quote but the person makes a grammatical error that you think needs to be fixed, you paraphrase. Period.

Now, at some publications, quotes are changed at times for grammar and usage to avoid errors that may be embarrassing to the source if they appeared in print. We don't do that. We paraphrase.

Speakers also use interjections when they pause that are not really part of what they're saying, and listeners ignore, such as “uh” (which we never include) and, often, “you know” (which we can often omit).

In any case, you, as an editor or a writer, should exercise extreme caution. The best advice, for this class and in the professional world, is to check with a supervising editor or the writer — in class, that's the instructor — before changing anything in a quote (other than an obvious typo and, even then, you should try to check with the writer to determine exactly what was left out or wrong).

Remember: It's always best to check with a supervisor before changing any quote for just about any reason. Get a second opinion -- always!

If you'd like more, take a gander at the letter I wrote to Miriam Pepper of The Kansas City Star in reponse to its policy of changing quotes and her (feeble, in my view) support of it.



    14. Said doesn't always mean quotes: Just because you see the word “said” doesn't necessarily mean the material to which it is attached is a direct quote — even if what's being expressed is an opinion. 

Examples: 

    He said America was the most beautiful country in the world.

Or:

    America is the most beautiful country in the world, he said.

Those examples merely paraphrase what the person actually said. This may seem silly, but I can't tell you the number of times I have students change paraphrases into direct quotes simply because the word “said” is in a sentence. If you don't see any quote marks in the sentence, don't put 'em there. If you think in your heart of hearts that it might be a quote, but the writer just forgot to put in the quote marks, don't put 'em there unless you check with the writer or the source.



    15. One last note on quotes (and one of Professor Gibson’s pet peeves, even though it's not listed on the Prof's Pet Peeves page): 

    Always make sure the reader is clear about who's doing the talking in a quote. 

Example: 

    “…South American economy,” Clinton said. 
    The president also said he was looking forward to the conference in Brazil because of the enormous economic implications for the United States. 
    “The American economy will only benefit from relaxed import-export requirements,” James Williamson, a General Motors representative, said. “We believe we can increase our business in most of South America if the president's trip is a success.” 

    The reader would have every reason to believe that President Clinton was saying “The American economy . . .” until, of course,the reader gets to the name of the General Motors representative.” 
    That's unfair to the reader. It's sloppy writing and editing. Don't do it. Period. Introduce a new speaker before heading into a quote. 

Example: 

     …for the United States. 
     James Williamson, a General Motors representative, agreed. 
     “The American economy …” 

    It's that easy. 

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