MLA Quoting and Paraphrasing

MLA Overview MLA In-Text Citations MLA Quoting and Paraphrasing MLA End Citation Models
An essential skill in writing is the ability to ethically and accurately share the ideas of others. Quotations, paraphrases and summaries are all methods of including research in your writing or presentations. The guidelines and examples below will help you determine when and how to appropriately incorporate research into your writing.
Note: This page reflects the latest version of the MLA Handbook (8th ed.), published in 2016. 
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General Guidelines

While you are still gaining experience and confidence in writing, there is often a temptation to rely heavily on the words and ideas of others. You might think, “How can I possibly say it as well as the expert?” or “How will anyone believe me unless I add in exhaustive research?” However, having confidence in your own ideas is one of the hallmarks of a more experienced writer, and this means that when incorporating the ideas of others, we should not allow them to “take over” our own ideas.
In addition, sometimes it is better to paraphrase or summarize an idea to keep it brief, rather than having an excessively long quotation. (See below for more info on both paraphrasing and summarizing ideas.)
That said, there are a number of reasons why we might want to quote the ideas of others. Here are some of the most common:
  • When wording is very distinctive so you cannot paraphrase it adequately;
  • When you are using a definition or explaining something very technical;
  • When it is important for debaters of an issue to explain their positions in their own words (especially if you have a differing viewpoint);
  • When the words of an authority will lend weight to your argument;
  • When the language of a source is the topic of your discussion (as in an interpretation).
In certain instances, you do not need to cite information. This is called the “common knowledge rule.” If a fact is widely and generally known (e.g., the sun rises in the east and sets in the west), you do not need to cite. Similarly, familiar sayings or oft-repeated quotations (e.g., “a penny saved is a penny earned”) do not need citations.
Common knowledge can in some cases be audience-specific; research scientists writing to their peers can assume a different level of common knowledge on their subject than when writing to a younger, less educated audience, for example. If you are ever in doubt as to whether you should cite a piece of information, ask your professor or a Writing Center consultant.
Trying to balance your ideas and those of your sources takes a bit of skill and finesse. The goal is to make the ideas (both yours and those of your sources) feel and look like a conversation—a mutual exchange of voices and ideas that helps you and your audience work out your reasoning on a topic. (You can read more about this idea of academic conversations here.) Sometimes, in the process of trying to incorporate the ideas of others, things fall a bit short of the ideal. Here are some common missteps that can lead to your writing seeming less polished:
  • Over-using one source: If you find yourself repeatedly citing the same source again and again in your writing, it will begin to seem as if you are merely repackaging the other author’s ideas, rather than presenting your own. It also gives the appearance that your ideas are one-sided, due to the lack of a diversity of voices in the conversation.
  • Having more source material than your own original ideas*: Try color-coding your writing. Highlight each instance where you are quoting, paraphrasing or summarizing a source. What’s left? Is your essay a rainbow of colors, with little else? Or are the majority of ideas/sentences yours, with a few well-chosen instances of source material? Aim for the latter; otherwise, it will seem like you are just “reporting out” on all the research you have gathered, rather than developing your own thinking on a subject.
  • Sharing too much of a quotation: Do you have a tendency to have a lot of really long quotations? Is block format your go-to method of formatting sources? Then you might be getting a bit carried away with your quoting. Try to read the source info critically, and ask yourself the following before adding a long quotation:
    • Does every aspect of this passage relate to my own paragraph ideas?
    • Can I cut out a section of this quotation to emphasize the points that are most relevant? (If yes, see below on proper formatting when you eliminate a portion of the quoted material.)
    • Would it be easier/better/more concise to paraphrase this idea? (If yes, see below on how to correctly and incorrectly paraphrase.)
  • Dropping in a random quote or source reference: Ideas without context are always confusing, whether they are yours or someone else’s. Make sure you provide adequate context and make connections between your ideas and those of your sources.
  • Not using a “source sandwich”: Cheesy as it sounds, this way of thinking about how to incorporate source material really works. In MLA, the proper format for integrating a source (whether quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing source info) is:
    • Signal phrase (a few words that introduce the author of the source; this might also include credentials of the author and/or title of work);
    • Quoted, paraphrased or summarized material, followed by a parenthetical citation;
    • Your own thinking that expands upon the ideas from the source material, and connects it back to your larger point.
For more on how to effectively incorporate evidence into your writing or presentation, see the handout “What Is Evidence?” here on VCU Writes.
*NOTE: This goal is more applicable to some writing situations than others. In a lab report or literature review, for example, the majority of your discussion might include restating/sharing research. Always confirm with your instructor if you are not sure what the appropriate balance of source material should be for your specific writing situation.
When quoting material from a source, wording and punctuation should be reproduced exactly as it is in the original. If you need to alter the quotation in any way, you must indicate this through punctuation or added material. Otherwise, you will be misrepresenting the ideas of others.
When paraphrasing or summarizing source info, you should still use quotation marks and cite any distinctive wording that you kept from the original.
See below for examples of how to correctly alter quotations.

Direct Quotation of Sources

A. Quotations that are fewer than four lines should be included in the text and enclosed in quotation marks. If you introduce the quotation in a signal phrase with the author’s full name (or source title, if the author’s name is not provided), include the page number in parentheses after the end of the quotation and before the period. It is not necessary to repeat the name in the parenthetical citation:

On the efficacy and importance of religion, David Hume asserts, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster” (319).

B. If you do not introduce the quotation with the author’s full name (or source title, if the author’s name is not provided), include the author’s last name and page number in parentheses after the end of the quotation and before the period:

When considering the efficacy and importance of religion, one must understand that “the life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster” (Hume 319).

C. If the quotation appears mid-sentence, end the passage with any applicable punctuation and a closing quotation mark, finish the sentence, and then cite the source in parentheses at the end of the sentence:

Based on the findings, Sommerfeldt argued that “the normative role of public relations in democracy is best perceived as creating the social capital that facilitates access to spheres of public discussion,” challenging dominant notions of democratic discourse (664).

(An exception to the mid-sentence example above would be if you have more than one source cited in the same sentence. In that case, include the parenthetical citation directly after each quotation in the sentence.)
Quotations that are more than four lines should be displayed in block quotation format. This is an indented passage that does not require quotation marks (the indent serves in place of quotation marks):

The question of voters’ reasons for picking a specific candidate or side in an issue is a complicated one.

Voters should have good grounds for thinking that they are voting for policies or candidates that will promote the common good. In general, there are three ways that voters will violate this norm. Bad voters might vote out of 1) ignorance, 2) irrational beliefs, or 3) immoral beliefs. In contrast, good voters not only know what policies candidates will try to implement, but also know whether those policies would tend to promote or harm the common good. Voters should aim to promote the common good rather than narrow self-interest. (Brennan 37)

Given that voters often don’t vote with the common good in mind, what steps can the community take to help change that?

Note that the period at the end of the block quotation is placed at the end of the sentence, rather than after the parenthetical citation. After the quotation is completed, continue your paragraph on the left margin (i.e., don’t indent as if it were a new paragraph).
If the quotation includes an alternate spelling (i.e., British English) or an error in grammar, punctuation, or spelling, write the word “sic” in brackets directly after the alternate spelling or error inside the quotation:

“VCU is well known for it’s [sic] diversity” (Jones 43). 

This lets the reader know that it is the original writer’s spelling or error.
It is often useful to omit material when you do not need all words or sentences included in the passage you are citing. If you omit material, use three spaced periods (. . .) within a sentence (the three periods are called an ellipsis) to indicate that you have omitted material from the original source:

Ariel Levy notes that “in the decades since the McKennas’ odyssey, the drug . . . has become increasingly popular in the United States” (34).

If you omit material after the end of a sentence, use four spaced periods (. . . .). This is a period, followed by an ellipsis.
A. Though direct quotations must be accurate, the first letter of the first word in the quotation may be changed either as uppercase or lowercase to match the flow of your sentence. Additionally, the punctuation mark ending a sentence may also be changed if necessary for appropriate syntax.
B. It is sometimes important to insert material when it will help the reader understand a quotation. When inserting material, enclose it in brackets:

Original quotation: “By programming a variety of Twitter bots to respond to racist abuse against black users, he showed that a simple one-tweet rebuke can actually reduce online racism” (Yong 45).

Revised quotation with inserted material for clarity: “By programming a variety of Twitter bots to respond to racist abuse against black users, he [Kevin Munger] showed that a simple one-tweet rebuke can actually reduce online racism” (Yong 45).

C. If you decide to italicize part or all of a quotation to emphasize a point you’re trying to make, add “emphasis added” in the parenthetical citation directly after the quotation:

The Dalai Lama has said, “Whether you call it Buddhism or another religion, self-discipline, that’s important. Self-discipline with awareness of consequences(1, emphasis added).

Note: If words were already italicized in the quoted material, you do not need to include the “emphasis added” designation. It is assumed that all formatting is original to the quotation unless you indicate otherwise.

Paraphrasing source material

When a writer uses another person’s idea but puts it in their own words, the writer is paraphrasing. To see a full explanation of paraphrasing, click here. It is important to remember that just as with quotations, paraphrased material still requires an in-text citation.
When paraphrasing or referencing an idea from another source, make sure that you provide enough information for the reader to easily locate the passage from the source you reference:

In New York, ineffective homeless shelter infrastructure often results in homeless children being denied a stable education. Children are placed in schools based on their place of residence, but the legislation controlling homeless shelter housing means families are often moved across the city in short periods of time. While children have the right to continue in their original school of enrollment, parents may be forced to choose between extremely challenging commutes or changing their child’s school multiple times, thus dramatically disrupting and lowering the quality of their child’s education (Brodsky 203).

Many writers are reluctant to paraphrase because they worry about making mistakes and unintentionally plagiarizing ideas in their writing. This is a valid concern, but with practice this skill can be developed just like any other. Learning to paraphrase effectively can demonstrate a deeper understanding and command of the ideas you are discussing, and aid in the flow of ideas in your essay or presentation. That said, there are some common mistakes that should be avoided:
  • When paraphrasing, make sure that you don’t copy the same pattern of wording as the original sentence or passage. This sometimes happens when a writer tries to just swap out a few words, but keeps the structure of the sentence the same or very similar.
  • Likewise, avoid using the same or very similar wording as the original. If your paraphrase includes a word or phrase borrowed from the original, make sure to put that portion in quotation marks.
  • As noted above, paraphrases require citations, just like direct quotations. Always include a signal phrase and parenthetical citation to indicate that the info you are sharing is not your own.
To make sure that you don’t fall prey to the above mistakes, read the passage you wish to paraphrase and then put it aside. Without looking at it, try to think about how you can say it in your own words, and write it down. Make sure you aren’t including your own ideas—just try to capture the essence of the original in as clear and straightforward a manner as possible.
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