Choosing Between Quotations and Paraphrases

You should paraphrase when you need the ideas from the text but not the exact words. Note that often when you quote, you usually need to paraphrase that quotation, too, so you should take every opportunity to practice your paraphrasing skills.

You should quote when you need not only the ideas but also the specific language from the text.

The Dangers of Too Much Quotation

If you quote more than you need to, you may find it easier to reach the word count, but your professor may not count those words. They aren’t your words, after all.

In general, your writing should stand on its own without the quotations. You still need to include quotations when the assignment, genre, or discipline calls for them, but your analysis or other use of what you are quoting is more important than the quoted words.

Try reading your paragraphs while skipping over any long quotations. Grammatically and stylistically, this may be awkward, but does your point still make sense? If not, you may need to provide more explanation of that quoted material.

Quoting for a Reason

There are four conditions under which you will normally choose a quotation over a paraphrase:

Memorable Language

We quote when the specific wording is so strong and so remarkable that we want our reader to see that exact language. Note that this does not mean that you are quoting the material because the author said it better than you could. Memorable language should be quoted because the language is special in some identifiable way. Think about language like “I have a dream” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” (President John F. Kennedy).

Technical Language

We quote when the source has explained a difficult or technical concept clearly and trying to paraphrase it would only make that explanation confusing. We do this frequently when we want to explain the definition of a key term used by a source or when we want to explain a technical concept or process.

Authoritative Language

We quote when we need to use the exact words from the source to point out that an expert makes a particular point. We often do this when we want to use the source as support for our own points or as examples of opposing positions. Note, though, that frequently a paraphrase works just as well if all we are trying to do is include information from an expert or show that an expert shares our position.

Language for Analysis

We quote when we are explaining how the specific language works in a particular passage and we need to refer to the author’s exact words in order to demonstrate or provide an example. You’ve probably done this frequently in analyses of literature, and you will also do it when you do rhetorical analyses.

Paraphrasing Instead

If the part you want to quote doesn’t meet one of these conditions, you should be paraphrasing instead.

Key Points: Choosing Between Quotations and Paraphrases

  • Paraphrase when you need the idea from the source, but not the language.
  • Quote when you need the idea and the language.
  • There are four types of language to quote:
    • Memorable language
    • Technical language
    • Authoritative language
    • Language for analysis
  • If the quote you are considering doesn’t match one of these types, paraphrase!



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Reading and Writing Successfully in College: A Guide for Students Copyright © 2023 by Patricia Lynne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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