How to punctuate quotations in a critical essay

  • A quotation is a phrase taken directly from a text or speech.
  • In critical essays, the points you make about a text should be supported by short quotations from the text.
  • There are different ways of using a quotation within the structure of an essay sentence or paragraph.
  • It’s important to carefully punctuate your quotations, so that the meaning is clear.
Learn how to use and punctuate quotations in essays

In a quotation it’s important to make sure you use the exact words from the original text. In most critical essays, it’s better to use shorter quotations in a precise way rather than write out very long quotations.

You can use single inverted commas ‘ ’ or double quotation marks “ ” to punctuate the quotation. Just make sure you stick to the same punctuation mark and don’t swap between the two.

These punctuation marks should contain the words taken from the text:

In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens the character of Scrooge is described as being ‘Hard and sharp as flint’.

In the example above, ‘Hard and sharp as flint’ is taken directly from the text.

Remember to close the punctuation marks at the end of the quotation. Only use a capital letter in a quotation, if one appears in the original text.

Scrooge is described as being ‘Hard and sharp as flint.’

Punctuation inside quotations

Punctuation that appears in the original text should be used in the quotation:

The character of Scrooge is described as ‘self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.’

In this example, the comma and full stop in the phrase ‘self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.’ appear in the original text and therefore need to be included with the quotation.

Sometimes a full stop is used outside of the quotation marks, this is because the full stop belongs to the whole sentence, not the original quotation:

In A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens the character of Scrooge is described as being ‘Hard and sharp as flint’.

Using quotations in an essay

There are different ways to use a quotation in an essay. For example, you could embed a quotation into your sentence or separate the quotation with a colon after your point.

Embedding quotations

The most effective way to use quotations is to embed them into your argument. Embedding is when the quotation becomes part of your own sentence:

The reader gains a negative impression of Scrooge, who is described as a ‘tight-fisted’ man and an ‘old sinner’.

This method allows you to use quotations in a precise way and select evidence carefully.

The reader gains a negative impression of Scrooge, who is described as a ‘tight-fisted’ man and an ‘old sinner’

Using quotations at the end of a point

Another common method is to use a quotation at the end of a point. A colon must be used before the quotation:

The reader gains a negative impression of Scrooge: ‘But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!’

How to separate a longer quotation

If a much longer quotation is being used, it is appropriate to separate it from the main essay by leaving a line and indenting the text. Indenting means leaving a gap after the left-hand margin. It is not necessary to use quotation marks if the text is separate from the main essay. You could introduce the quotation like this:

In the beginning of the novel, Dickens establishes the details of Scrooge’s character for his reader in a collection of negative verbs and powerful similes.

Below the introductory sentence you would leave a line and then indent the quotation.

Using an ellipsis

An ellipsis is a punctuation mark of three dots in a row that shows something is missing from the sentence. An ellipsis in a quotation can be used if you want to leave out a section. This might be useful if you want a shorter and more precise quotation:

Dickens uses various powerful similes, ‘Hard and sharp as flint … solitary as an oyster.’ to create a vivid and negative impression for the reader.

Remember

Using quotations correctly makes your essay more convincing and shows that you are able to use evidence to support your points.

Quiz

Find out how much you know about punctuating quotations in essays in this short quiz!