Once you’re familiar with how to introduce a quotation using a signal phrase, you’re ready to learn the more advanced rules on this page. You don’t have to memorize every rule, but try get a general sense of things and then consult specific sections when you have questions.
If your quotation is rather long you will have to set it off differently.
In MLA format, the rule is that when a quotation is longer than three lines of text (so four or more lines) you should turn it into a block quotation.
To check the length of a quotation, just start typing it out in your own text and if it exceeds three lines then you know it should be a block quotation. In the case of poetry, you measure the length in terms of the poetic line in the original text, even if there are only a few words per line.
Here’s an example of a block quotation:
I have always found Ellen Grammar to be extremely repetitive, as she shows in this passage from Why I Love Quotations:
Let me repeat myself for clarity. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. This is a quotation. Got it yet? (315)
In a block quotation almost all the regular rules for quoting are inverted or changed. There are no quotation marks, the entire quotation is indented one tab space, and the final punctuation comes before the citation, and not after.
Most block quotations are introduced by a formal introduction. The reason is that if you’re quoting a significant amount of text you need to give it a fairly detailed introduction. Otherwise the reader may have a hard time making sense of the quotation.
In particular, you should avoid using a run-in signal phrase or continuing your sentence after the quotation, even though you will often see these things in older academic texts.
Finally, after the block quotation there is no need to indent your next sentence. Usually you will want to continue with your paragraph and explain the significance of the quotation.
Here are the essential rules for quoting poetry.
If you are quoting 2 or 3 lines of poetry, use slashes to indicate line breaks:
In “The Fly,” Ogden Nash mixes humour with theology: “God in His wisdom made the fly / And then forgot to tell us why” (1-2).
Make sure you put a space on either side of the slash. If your quotation skips a stanza break, use a double slash (//).
Also, as with a regular quotation, delete the final punctuation (unless it’s an exclamation mark or question mark).
If you are quoting 4 or more lines of poetry, you must use a block quotation. Do not use slashes but copy each line (including its punctuation) on a separate line just as it appears in your source:
One wonders whether Ella Pencil’s poem “Spaced Out” parodies itself:
This is yet another poem that
relies on unu-
spacing to make
an impression. (1-5)
As with any block quotation, we have a signal phrase (usually a formal introduction), the lines are indented a tab space, and the final punctuation is deleted unless it’s an exclamation mark or question mark.
Note that all the original spacing is retained in a block quotation. This also applies if the quotation starts in the middle of a line.
Finally, it may occasionally happen that a line of verse is so long that it can’t fit on one line of text. In that case, just indent the second line a bit more (hanging indentation).
The MLA Handbook suggests that all quotations of dialogue from plays or screenplays should be treated as block quotations. Names of the speakers are in capitals:
In David Baird’s play Broken Glass, the leaders of the main political parties are divided about how to stem the tide of illegal immigrants from the Vatican:
PRIME MINISTER GATTUSO: We cannot allow any more of these robed people into our country.
ANDREA PEERLESS: I can’t accept such a heartless …
PRIME MINISTER GATTUSO: heartless? It’s simply a matter of restoring order. We cannot have these people parading through the streets in their funny costumes. (3.4.15-19)
Note that in a print format you can also apply hanging indentation to each speaker’s lines.
Citations of plays are usually by act, scene, and line number. However, in the case of plays in prose you may cite by page number instead. When quoting shorter sections of prose you also don’t have to use a block quotation.
Quotes within Quotes
A quote within a quote is placed between single quotation marks:
My friend Natasha told me about a conversation she had with Nibaa after their American lit class: “The other day, Nibaa said, ‘I don’t understand why Moby-Dick is a classic. Much of it reads like a manual on how to run a ship.'”
In the unusual event that you’re dealing with a quote within a quote within a quote, you would revert back to double quotation marks.
If you’re not quoting anything more than the entire quote within a quote, then just use double quotation marks:
Natasha told me what her friend Nibaa had to say about Moby-Dick: “I don’t understand why Moby-Dick is a classic. Much of it reads like a manual on how to run a ship.”
If you’re quoting a language other than English, you may want to provide a translation. Here’s what you need to know.
First, there are a number of ways to format the translation. We would recommend placing it in parentheses:
In one draft, Tolkien had Gandalf tell the Balrog, “Achtung, Baby” (“Pay attention, baby!”; 223; Johnson 34).
However, you can also place it prior to the parentheses, in single quotation marks:
In one draft, Tolkien had Gandalf tell the Balrog, “Achtung, Baby” ‘Pay attention, baby!’ (223; Johnson 34).
As far as the citation goes, it’s customary to cite the original first and then provide the source of the translation. All this information is separated by semi-colons.
If the translation is your own, use the abbreviation “my trans.” instead:
In the original Pig Latin manuscript, Sarah’s question about hopscotch alludes to the “ants” that are frequently in the “way”: “howay antsway otay laypay opscotchay?” (“who wants to play hopscotch?” (2.3.1; my trans.).
If you are consistently using your own translations for a series of quotations, you can save time by noting in a footnote or endnote which translations you have contributed.
You can also provide a translation as part of a block quotation:
We thought it would be great to translate a stanza from the Haka into Klingon. Here is how one online translator renders the following passage:
This is the hairy man,
Who fetched the sun and caused it to shine again.
One step upward, another step upward!
A step upward, another… the Sun shines!
hairy loD ghotvam’e’.
pemHov fetched je ‘oH jatlhqa’ boch luH.
latlh mIw upward mIw upward, wa’!
latlh mIw upward, a … jul boch! (“Ka Mate”; Tradukka)
I’m no Klingon, but this does not seem quite accurate to me.
Notice that when you’re citing internet sources you may not be able to give page numbers and may need to give a short title of the title instead.
In all our examples so far we have given the original text first, but you can change the order. If you think the reader would have a hard time understanding the original language, you might place the translation first. Make sure you also change the order in the citation! For example, (49; my trans.) would become (my trans.; 49).
On the other hand, if you can expect the reader to have some expertise in the language (as is the case in many academic disciplines), or if you want to point out something about the original, then first provide the original.
It may happen that you want to emphasize something in a quotation. To indicate that you’ve made the change, use the words “emphasis added”:
Churchill apparently joked, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put” (emphasis added).
If you are citing a source as well, place the tag after a semi-colon:
Everyone is surprised when Mary tells Tony, “Bob’s your aunt!” (Leicester 28; emphasis added).
Most of the time, though, you don’t need to add any emphasis. Assume that your reader is smart enough to figure out what’s significant about the quotation.
Sometimes when you quote you may want to skip part of the quotation.
To indicate the omission of words, phrases, or entire lines, you must use an ellipsis (plural ellipses), which is just a fancy word for three spaced periods. Here’s an example:
As Edward Diptych points out, “Art forgers sometimes include blemishes and imperfections . . . in an effort to outwit the connoisseur” (88).
And here’s an example for poetry:
William Blake argues in “Holy Thursday” (1794) that “where-e’er the sun does shine . . . Babe can never hunger there” (13, 15).
Notice that in this case the ellipsis takes the place of a line break (/); in other words, you don’t need to use both.
If you indent a longer quotation of poetry and you skip one or more lines, use a full line of dots between the quoted lines:
In the “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson appears to allude to the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:
And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott. (46-48, 71-72)
Be careful that when you use an ellipses the grammar and meaning of the quoted passage still make sense.
Also, you do not have to add ellipsis marks at the beginning or end of a quotation. We know that the quoted text has been cut out of a larger passage. The only exception is if you have left out some words at the end of a sentence or line quoted. In such cases you can add an ellipsis at the end.
If you end one sentence before the ellipsis, and start a new one afterwards, then you will end up with four spaced periods (one regular period and three for the ellipsis). Here is an example:
Viktor Bardstrom speculates that Viking explorers got as far as Minnesota: “Anyone who has watched football knows about the Minnesota Vikings. . . . In fact, historical records show that the braid in the Vikings logo goes back all the way to the thirteenth century” (20).
Finally, if the passage you’re quoting already had an ellipsis, you have two options. You can either put square brackets [ ] around the original ellipses, or you can add a note in your citation—something like this:
(54; 1st ellipsis in original)
You can edit quotations by inserting your own words in square brackets. Here are some areas in which this is useful:
1. When you want to clarify something in the quotation:
William Blake argues in the poem “Holy Thursday” (1794) that “where-e’er [wherever] the sun does shine . . . Babe can never hunger there [in England]” (13, 15).
2. When you want to capitalize a word or vice versa:
William Blake writes in “Holy Thursday” (1794), “[W]here-e’er the sun does shine . . . Babe can never hunger there” (13, 15).
3. When you need to add some words to make the grammar work. You can substitute these words for existing words in the quotation.
William Blake writes about children in “Holy Thursday” (1794) that “where-e’er the sun does shine . . . [they] can never hunger there” (13, 15).
4. Lastly, if there’s a mistake in the quotation (let’s say a spelling error), you can insert [sic] behind it to indicate that the mistake belongs to the original author of the quotation.
Lee Slovenly writes that “Harry Plotter [sic] has a mostly predictable narrative structure” (899).
In these instances you can avoid coming across as pedantic by rewriting slightly:
Lee Slovenly writes that Harry Potter “has a mostly predictable narrative structure” (899).
In other words, try to minimize the use of square brackets.
Page and Line Numbers
For your first citation in an essay it’s generally a good idea to indicate whether it’s a page number of line number (e.g., page 315). After that you can just supply the number and leave out the word “page” or “line(s).”
However, if you’re switching back and forth between different formats (pages, paragraphs, lines, etc.) you may want to provide further clarification in the course of your writing.
A paraphrase is when you sum up a passage in your own words and provide an appropriate citation. Quotations take up a lot of space, so paraphrases can be a useful way of incorporating the ideas of others.
Here’s an example:
Original text: In Edmonton’s early days there were coal mines all along the river, even in the downtown core. Eventually mining operations moved out of the centre of town (especially east to Beverly), until the switch to natural gas in the late 1920s brought an end to coal mining in the area. These days developers are advised to consult old mining maps, though many tunnels were not properly reported and may since have collapsed. (Highland 77).
Paraphrase 1: Edmonton’s early history was fueled by coal, and even today developers may come across collapsed mining shafts (Highland 77).
Paraphrase 2: After Edmonton started to use natural gas for fuel, the local coal industry collapsed, and so did many of the tunnels over time (Highland 77).
Be careful that you don’t use entire phrases from the original text. This is how not to do it:
Incorrect paraphrase: Edmonton’s urban landscape hides the fact that there were coal mines all along the river (Highland 77).
The second half of this paraphrase is lifted word for word from the original text, and even though there is a citation this is a form of plagiarism.
It’s always important to remember why you are using quotations in the first place. An essay is not just a patchwork of quotations. Think of yourself more as a curator at a museum. You get to put on a show and tell a story. You organize the spaces and write the captions. In the same way you need to help the reader make sense of the ideas of others.
So don’t let the quotations swamp your own analysis. Introduce every quotation carefully and be sure to explain, interpret, and apply quotations before you move on with your argument.
For more information about quoting, see also our section on in-text citation (part of the MLA guidelines for writers).