Quotations: Integrating them in MLA-Style Papers

The MLA-style in-text citation is a highly compressed format, designed to preserve the smooth flow of your own ideas (without letting the outside material take over your whole paper). A proper MLA inline citation uses just the author's last name and the page number (or line number), separated by a space (not a comma).

One engineer who figures prominently in all accounts of the 1986 Challenger accident says NASA was "absolutely relentless and Machiavellian" about following procedures to the letter (Vaughan 221).
See also: Academic Writing; Using Quotations Effectively; Thesis Statements


In high school, you may have been rewarded for introducing every quote with a full sentence identifying the author and mentioning the author's credentials.

Diane Vaughan, a professor of psychology at Boston College and an expert in corporate reactions to emergencies, published an extensive study of the 1986 Challenger disaster, called The Challenger Launch Decision. In that book, on page 221, she quotes an engineer who figures prominently in all accounts of the disaster, and who says NASA was "absolutely relentless and Machiavellian" about following procedures to the letter.
In The Challenger Launch Decision, by Diane Vaughan, it says that an engineer who figures prominently in all accounts of the disaster believes NASA was "absolutely relentless and Machiavellian" about following procedures to the letter.

An MLA-style paper does not ask you to give the full name and credentials of your sources in the body of your paper, or even the full title of your source. (Save that information for the Works Cited list.)

In high school, where you might write a whole paper using only one or two sources, you got points for calling attention to the fact that you found a good source and were able to use it successfully in a paper. But in a paper you write for college, you may use three or four different sources in the same paragraph, and you may refer to several additional sources without actually quoting from them. If you bring your essay to a screeching halt in order to introduce the full name and credentials of each author, you will bury whatever argument you were trying to make.

Any college writing handbook will have multiple examples of how to cite multiple pages from the same source, multiple works from the same author, and other variations.  This handout does not attempt to cover those details; instead, it emphasizes the stylistic and intellectual value of integrating brief quotes from outside sources, using those words to make your own original point. That's very different from the wordy, high-schoolish method of introducing a quotation, presenting the quoted words, and then summarizing what those words mean.

Integrate Quotations from Outside Sources

Don't interrupt the flow of your own argument to give the author's full name or the source's full title.  Spend fewer words introducing your sources, and devote more words to expressing and developing your own ideas in ways that use shorter quotations, or even just a few words, from your outside sources.

Have you ever noticed how some people just won't shut up?  In the book Why I Love Words by the authentic-sounding fictional humorist Ira Talott, a similar point is made on page 45: "The streets are full of people who talk to themselves, who write journal entries to nobody.  Do they feel that speaking and writing is more important than listening and reading?  These people are boring at parties, but are they arrogant?  They are compulsive communicators.  It's more likely that they simply live in perpetual fear of silence." This quote shows that people who talk too much may not actually be able to help themselves, so we should be kind to them.

The above example makes a very small point, quoting a much longer passage than necessary, and expending far too many words on the buildup. 

If you draw so much attention to your sources, your paper will end up sounding a little like this:

Hi, there, I'm about to introduce a quote now. I'm really proud that I found it because it took me a whole 15 minutes to find it in a book. Are you ready? Okay here is my quote. [Several sentences from the outside source.] Now listen up, because now that I've shown you the quote, I'm going to re-state every point in my own words, in order to make sure I get points for knowing what the quote means.


Our first revision will simply trim out the unnecessary words, removing all references like "here is a relevant quote" or "here is what I think this quote means," and instead simply focusing on writing a single sentence that not only introduces the quoted material, but also uses it in a sentence that drives an argument.

Talott is sympathetic towards "compulsive communicators," who are "boring at parties," but who are not actually arrogant; instead, they "simply live in perpetual fear of silence" (45).

This revision is marginally better, but only because it uses fewer words -- it's still just summarizing Talott's argument, rather than using the outside quote to advance the author's own argument. What this revision is missing is the application of the quote, in the service of advancing the author's original point.

Resist the temptation simply to add a sentence that says "This quote supports my thesis because..." Instead, make your argument flow naturally from your presentation of the borrowed material.

Three Potential Ways to Apply Borrowed Material

The following examples show three different ways that the same quoted material could be used to advance an original argument, by directly tying the material from one source to related material from another source.

Talott is sympathetic towards "compulsive communicators," who are "boring at parties" (45), but who are not actually arrogant.  These people "live in perpetual fear of silence," which makes them "especially susceptible to bottom-feeding advertising campaigns" (Jones 132) that prey upon low self-esteem and body image.
Talott is sympathetic towards "compulsive communicators," who are "boring at parties" (45), but who are not actually arrogant.  These people "live in perpetual fear of silence," not unlike in Miss Bates from Emma, whose well-meaning but dull conversation makes her an easy victim of the heroine's insensitive teasing.
Talott is sympathetic towards "compulsive communicators," who are "boring at parties" (45), but who are not actually arrogant.  These people "live in perpetual fear of silence," which contrasts sharply with the title character in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," who would "prefer not to" leave the silent prison of his own making.  

[Note: In this last case, Bartleby repeatedly says that he would "prefer not to" do various things... I didn't cite a specific page number, because the phrase appears in multiple places. --DGJ]

Note the absence of phrases like, "This quote supports my claims because..." or "Another quote offers a useful contrast with this quote." These revisions aren't wasting any words talking about "quotes" or "sources," just as a good carpenter won't call attention to nail holes or sawed joints.

Integrate Borrowed Material Smoothly and Efficiently

Avoid clunky, high-schoolish documentation like the following:

In the book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, by Fredrich A. Kittler, it talks about writing and gender, and says on page 186, "an omnipresent metaphor equated women with the white sheet of nature or virginity onto which a very male stylus could inscribe the glory of its authorship." As you can see from this quote, all this would change when women started working as professional typists.
The passages "it talks about" and "As you can see from this quote" are very weak attempts to engage with the ideas presented by Kittler. In addition, "In the book... it talks" is ungrammatical ("the book" and "it" are redundant subjects) and nonsensical (books don't talk).
 
In the mid 1880s, "an omnipresent metaphor equated women with the white sheet of nature or virginity onto which a very male stylus could inscribe the glory of its authorship" (Kittler 186), but all this would change when women started working as professional typists. 
This revision is marginally better, but only because it uses fewer words -- it's still not integrating the outside quote into the author's own argument.

Don't expend words writing about quotes and sources. If you use words like "in the book My Big Boring Academic Study, by Professor H. Pompous Windbag III, it says it says" or "the following quote by a government study shows that..." you are wasting words that would be better spent developing your ideas.

Using about the same space as the original, see how MLA style helps an author devote more words to developing the idea more fully. We shall continue to revise the above example:

Before the invention of the typewriter, "an omnipresent metaphor" among professional writers concerned "a very male stylus" writing upon the passive, feminized "white sheet of nature or virginity" (Kittler 186). By contrast, the word "typewriter" referred to the machine as well as the female typist who used it (183).
This revision is perhaps a bit hard to follow, when taken out of context. But if you put a bit of introduction into the space you saved by cutting back on wasted words, the thought is clearer.
To Kittler, the concept of the pen as a masculine symbol imposing form and order upon feminized, virginal paper was "an omnipresent metaphor" (186) in the days before the typewriter. But businesses were soon clamoring for the services of typists, who were mostly female. In fact, "typewriter" meant both the machine and the woman who used it (183).
The above revision mentions Kittler's name in the body, and cites two different places in Kittler's text (identified by page number alone).  This is a perfectly acceptable variation of the standard author-page parenthetical citation.

While MLA Style generally expects authors to save details for the Works Cited pages, there's nothing wrong with introducing the work more fully -- if you have a good reason to do so. 

For example, in a paper on the history of the typewriter, you might want to refer to the typist who appears in T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Waste Land." If so, you should identify the source as a poem, so that reader won't mistake the reference for an academic article. In a similar way, if your paper mainly cites poets, you might need to identify somebody else as an editor or literary critic. Or, perhaps you feel that a particular author's nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, or education level may affect the relevance of a particular point raised by the author.

Don't give the full, high-schoolish introduction without a good reason -- the presence of irrelevant details is a signal to your reader that you don't know what you want to say.


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