on quotations in student essays

Okay, academic blogosphere, correct me if I’m wrong. Here’s an email I sent to my students:

On Tuesday, we talked about incorporating quotations into your papers. Many of you thought that a quote could be a complete sentence within quotation marks, without being incorporated into one of your own sentences.

I said, instead, that you should make a quotation part of one of your own sentences, and that your sentence should introduce, explain, or provide context for the quotation.

Take a look at section 3.7 of the MLA Handbook (6th edition), which says, “You must construct a clear, grammatically correct sentence that allows you to introduce or incorporate a quotation with complete accuracy” (109). Look also at all of the examples of the use of quotations in that section.

I’m not dreaming, am I? When quoting someone else in an essay, you do not simply plunk the quotation down between two sentences of your own composition, even if those sentences explain the importance of your quotation. You have to incorporate the quotation into one of your own sentences in a grammatically correct fasion fashion…right?

My students were adamant that I am wrong.

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20 thoughts on “on quotations in student essays

  1. Fasion? Where’s my red pen?
    No, you’re absolutely right. It doesn’t take much for me to jog my memory and recall sitting there grading 101 papers with a hand cramped from writing for the five bajillionth time “incorporate quote.” Though, truth be told, I’ve read a few well-established academics who are guilty of this very thing. Perhaps your students were taught by these ne’er-do-wells? A pox upon them, at any rate.

  2. If you’re wrong, I’m wrong, and so is one of my profs who spent a good bit if class time last week explaining this very concept to people who did a piss-poor job of introducing quotes in their essays.

  3. The Bedford Handbook calls it a “dropped quotation” and suggests that writers avoid it (pg 581). It also states that “After a word group introducing a quotation, choose a colon, a comma, or no punctuation at all, whichever is appropriate in context” (pg 428). I apologize in advance for any mistakes in quoting the above material, haha.

  4. You’re right, G. I just did my “dropped quotation” lecture the other day. My students nodded as if they understood, yet their papers occasionally suggest otherwise.

  5. You’re absolutely right. A quotation just plunked into a paper may be *grammatically* correct, but it’s *argumentatively* and *rhetorically* completely wrong. The reader should not be required to do the work of making the connections betwee the author’s argument and the quotes he or she uses.

  6. My sense is that what your students are thinking of is either a) lazy high school teachers who couldn’t be bothered to teach elegant quote incorporation, but wanted quote use (which happens all too often) or b) the independent clause, followed by a colon (which reads like an end-stopped sentence) before a discrete quote.
    But you’re right: if it’s not actually incorrect, it’s certainly styistically hideous . . .
    (and we do the quote incorporation lesson right after spring break–I will cite this chorus to be sure.)

  7. You’re right. But the batch of student essays I just finished grading was so terrible in so many ways that I don’t even have the heart to address the plunking of the quotation question. When my students arrive in your classes still doing it, forgive me: if they’re even analyzing the quotations at all in any way, I will have achieved miracles.

  8. Continue to fight the good fight, G2! Dropped in quotes are one of my all time pet-peeves…lazy writing, for it allows the writer to quote without situating the quote and usually, without explaining why or how s/he is using it.

  9. He said, “I’m not dreaming, am I?” and I replied, ‘He said, “I’m not dreaming am I?”‘ indicating that if the nested case is presented as an example and a challenge, the students are likely to find solutions they can make their own.
    Give them something to chop up!
    Formalist exercises where they quote the last part of a sentence first are as fun as they are memorable. e.g. We hold these truths … Note the plural, “these truths” is in the possession of a collective “we” but the possession is not necessarily a relationship of ownership but one of custodianship, “we hold”. Individually we cannot hold these truths. Together we can. And so as mindful readers we too can claim that “[w]e hold these truths.”
    Good old fashion parsing. To aid and assist thinking.
    See: Erasmus _De copia_

  10. I try to explain it like this: when you let a quote stand by itself, you are letting someone else’s writing do _your_ work for you. The only thing standing between you and plagiarism is four weeny little black marks. Just sayin’.

  11. Oh dear, never heard this before, but you seem to make total sense. Hmm, I might even have been one of those students that uses dropped quotes. Darn, should work on my writing style then… (And should teach my students something!)

  12. Thank you!!! This is one of my pet peeves as well. When my colleagues and I grade papers, we always stand up and announce “Ta-da!!!” when we see a dropped-in quote. It’s as if they just want to say, “Look, I opened a book.”
    This one is right up there with using “they” to refer to a singular person, citing discussions with roommates to support ideas in a paper, and saying “No research exists on this topic” when they really mean “No research exists in full text on Google on this topic.”
    Cheers!

  13. I’m with these other commenters: dropped quotes give me the heebie jeebies. It’s not just lazy high school writing they’re thinking of, though, journalists do it all the time. If your students read a newspaper at all, they see dropped quotes in every paragraph. I think that’s why they think you’re wrong. And why you might momentarily wonder if you dreamed the whole thing up.
    Like many of the other commenters I address this issue as directing the reading of a quote–the student does not mean the same thing by the quote that the original author did, so he or she needs to contextualize that quote to make his or her reader understand what it means now.

  14. I’m wondering about prescriptivism, and the temptation thereto. Sorry. Been thinking too much. I tend to spill.
    There’s a very nice book. Adios, Strunk and White by Hoffman & Hoffman. I recommend a good read before bashing anybody too hard. Having read far too large a number of papers written in the style of this sentence, I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the cultural norms evinced in our grammatical affectations are more obfuscatory than engaging.
    Is the way that it’s done now the best way? Or merely the way… it’s done?

  15. I’ve explained it this way: You must transition into and out of quoted material, i.e. tell us something is coming and then explain what it means or why it’s important. I’ve never thought of it quite the way you stated it, but I think we achieve the same result. Here’s an example I give from one of my essays:
    But a presidential autobiography, like any such text, is far more than a sorting out of historical events and so by its very nature complicates our notions of facts and the public record. Further, autobiography is, as William Berry claims, a “narcissistic enterprise” in which the subject gazes inward and “discovers a landscape of surpassing depth and beauty” (610). This is a fanciful expression of the desire to make one’s inner life and thoughts known and the concomitant desire of the readers to tap into those inner thoughts.

  16. I wonder: does this apply to block quotes as well? Where in order to make the quote a part of the writer’s own sentence would make a long, crazy, multi-sentence sentence?
    Maybe not?

  17. Note, on the other hand, the use of just these kinds of dropped quotations in Jacques Ranciere’s writing (for example). Of course, I’m all for students knowing the rules before they break them, and most of them aren’t Ranciere.
    But still.

  18. Most of my students try to incorporate quotations (yay!), but sad things happen along the way (boo!). As I had to explain to some kids today, the semi-colon is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever, but not when it’s introducing a quotation!

  19. This may be the most comments any entry has received (besides this one).

    I did find a site that uses the language of “lead in” and “lead out” that my students mentioned, and that shows an example of what I would call a “dropped quotation” as being acceptable. I suppose I should just email the person who taught them in the previous composition class and ask.

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