79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing



An academic quotation can be combined with a reference in various ways, each with its own challenges and pitfalls.



Quotations quite often need to be given in formal writing. They tell a reader three different things: [1] the thought(s) of the quoted person(s), [2] the wording used by the quoted person(s), and [3] the fact that the quoting writer is not the originator of the quoted thought(s) and wording. The first and third of these messages can also be communicated through changed wording (see 80. How to Paraphrase). Quotations are preferred when there is a special reason – good or bad – for not changing the original wording. The words might be inspiring, famous, clever, concise, confusing or ambiguous (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech).

In writing a quotation, the most likely place for a language error is in the surrounding words. These words usually include a “reference”, i.e. the name of the person or people who first used the quoted words, e.g. Shakespeare or Jones (2015, p. 64), plus an expression (usually a verb) of saying, writing or thinking, e.g. writes. One possible error is using the wrong tense of a verb of saying or thinking (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs). However, the kind of error that I want to focus on here is using the wrong kind of link to join the quotation onto the reference.



Quotations range in size from a single word to a paragraph or longer. A useful division is between those that are less than a sentence and those that are a sentence or more (for a definition of a sentence, see 30. When to Write a Full Stop). The second type, sentence-length or longer quotations, are slightly easier to link to their reference. One way is as follows:

(a) Sim (2013, p. 6) cautions that “the size of a vehicle is no sure guide to its fuel consumption”.

Here, the linking word cautions between the reference Sim (2013, p.6) and the sentence-length quotation is a “citation” verb. When introducing an academic quotation or paraphrase, such verbs tend to be in the present simple tense (see 76. Tenses of Citation Verbs).

In addition to cautions in (a), there is the conjunction that. It may accompany a citation verb introducing an ordinary statement, but not a question-introducing one like ASK (see 57. Indirect Questions in Formal Writing). The possibility of that before quoted statements may be slightly surprising, given that it is normally associated with indirect, not direct, speech. The reason why it is possible is that quoted statements, despite their direct form, are nevertheless reports just as indirect statements are.

That is not the only way of linking a citation verb to a quoted statement. It might be replaced by a colon, or by an earlier as and later comma (As Sim [2013, p.6] points out, … – see 104. Naming Data Sources with “As”). Note that as and that cannot go together; doing so is a frequent grammar error (see 133. Confusions of Similar Structures 1).

Citation verbs are a common way to link a reference to a sentence-length quotation, but not the only one. Two preposition phrases that can be used instead are according to and in the words of. The start of (a) could thus be rewritten According to Sim (2013, p. 6), … . One other common way of making a link is to place the reference by itself directly after the quotation, like this:

(b) It has been argued that “the work-shy see an opportunity to stay in bed” (Lee, 2011, p. 18).

In these cases, the quotation will still usually need some words before it, often with a citation verb (has been argued). Since the subject of this citation verb – the reference – is being mentioned later, a new subject – impersonal it – has to be introduced, forcing the verb to be in the passive voice. An alternative is to replace the citation verb with its related “action” noun, in this case argument, so that the sentence then begins in some such way as There is an argument that … (see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”? and 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns).

Note the new position of brackets in the reference when it follows a quotation: around everything, not just the date and page number.



There are two major reasons why a quotation might not itself be a sentence. One is that the quoting writer might not want to quote any more than a word or phrase. The other is that a complete sentence chosen to be quoted might have to be partially paraphrased instead because one or more of its words does not fit the new context.

One possible cause of a sentence not fitting a new context is the presence within it of a pronoun like it which only makes sense in the original context. Another is wording of such length that the quoting writer needs to summarise some of it. A third is grammar within the quotation that cannot combine with the new surrounding words.

Single words and phrases may be quoted if they are somehow striking, for example through being original, emotive or non-standard. An easy way to fit a quoted noun or noun phrase into a sentence is with an object-taking speech verb like CALL, REFER TO, MENTION or SPEAK OF (for more possibilities, see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech), like this:

(c) It is fashionable among development theorists to speak of a “population explosion”.

Even long noun phrases containing a verb are easily quoted in this way. Care is needed to avoid confusing them with sentence-like statements. Consider this:

(d) Lee (2017, p. 42) highlights “languages that are learned for international communication”.

The quotation here is not a statement because its verb follows the conjunction that, a typical means of making statements grammatically like nouns rather than sentences (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”). As a result, the speech verb (highlights) must be one that takes an ordinary noun object – it cannot be one that needs a statement-showing as or that.

Part-sentence quotations that need to be combined with a paraphrase may be illustrated as follows (the paraphrase underlined):

(e) Peters (2010, p. 59) writes that examples in the ancient world “took the form of actions based in the past”.

Here, the paraphrase is of the original subject of the quoted verb (took), perhaps because it was a pronoun.

An important kind of surrounding word that can force a grammatical change on a quotation is a type of citation verb that does not allow that, such as CRITICISE. Suppose that a reporting writer wanted to use this verb with the following quotation:

(f) …  “most social benefits promote a culture of dependency”.

After CRITICISE, there must be a noun or noun equivalent instead of that, any subsequent verb being in the -ing form after as or for (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1, # [g]). Sentence (f), therefore, would have to be quoted with CRITICISE in the following way (underlining showing the necessary changes):

(g) Rodriguez (2010, p. 43) criticises most social benefits as promoting “a culture of dependency”.

The need to change promote into as promoting excludes it from the quotation, and makes its subject social benefits awkward to include too.

Other verbs that need as + -ing instead of that include DEFINE, DESCRIBE, DISTINGUISH, EVALUATE, HIGHLIGHT, IDENTIFY, PRAISE, PRESENT, QUOTE, REFER TO, SINGLE OUT, THINK OF and VIEW. More about them can be read in the post 92. Complement-Showing “as”. Also notable are “prepositional” verbs like BLAME (sb for sth or sth on sb), which are analysed in the post 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun).

Finally, the nature of part-sentence quotations often makes them easier than whole-sentence ones to place before rather than after their reference. In the following example, this seems neater than using a citation verb like says that:

(h) The “lottery of the streets” (Lopez, 2004) is an all too inevitable consequence of poverty for children in many less developed parts of the world.


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