I am often distracted by the awkward way in which a writer integrates quotations into the text. But when I started to write here about the specific problems, I didn’t know where to start. Take a look at the following quotations. Why don’t the following quotations read smoothly? See if you feel as icky as I do reading them, and whether you can say why:
1. At the time he “exhibited the plans of the mortuary” he vowed he would not “build it unless you would agree that the fee be paid up front.”
2. The cost of the food was to “be borne by the diners, who will presumably fatten both themselves and their wallets by means of the event.”
3. Stanton and his wife Marie were unhappily “maligned by marriage with some of Houston’s first families.”
4. They lived in “one of the oldest of Hyde Park’s apartment houses and one as nearly aristocratic as a Chicago South Side apartment house can be. . . . When Belle married she had protested an apartment. . . . No privacy. Everything huddled together on one floor and everybody underfoot.”
Sometimes when I can’t articulate a problem, I rewrite the passage first and then try to discover what I did and why. Here are my edited versions (tracking is hidden):
1. When he presented his plans for the mortuary he told the client he would not start building without payment in advance.
2. The cost of the food would be paid “by the diners, who will presumably fatten both themselves and their wallets by means of the event.”
3. Vasquez writes that Stanton and his wife Marie were unhappy, “maligned by marriage” with some of the most prominent families of Houston.
4. They lived in one of the oldest apartment buildings in Hyde Park, which, according to Furber, was “as nearly aristocratic as a Chicago South Side apartment house can be.” The newlywed Belle had not wanted an apartment, fearing a lack of privacy, with “everything huddled together on one floor and everybody underfoot.”
Looking over my changes, I’m able to see exactly what bothered me in the originals, and from there I can formulate some concrete advice for avoiding problems:
—Don’t introduce a quotation in such a way as to land in the middle of a verb (“[would not] build it unless you can agree,” “[was to] be borne by the diners”) or in a way that awkwardly breaks up a modifying phrase (“[unhappily] maligned by marriage”).
—Passages that aren’t striking or unique or charged in any way (“one of the oldest of Hyde Park’s apartment houses”) are better used without quotation marks. Reword a bit. The original writer doesn’t have a copyright on pedestrian prose.*
—Isolate the part of the quotation that’s special, and then don’t do anything to wreck it. “Maligned by marriage” instead of “aligned by marriage” is fun, but in the original quote, it’s blunted by the word “long” tacked in front of it and the lackluster words that follow.
—A quotation that is clever or opinionated or shows personality that’s obviously not the writer’s requires attribution right there in the sentence: Vasquez writes; according to Furber. Relegating the source to an endnote isn’t enough.
Can you add to my list?
*But remember: extended paraphrasing is against the rules. Taking someone else’s sentences and swapping out every other word for a synonym is just another form of plagiarizing.
More on quoting:
“Quoting Well, Part 1: “It’s More Than Just Accuracy”
“Quoting Well, Part 2: “When It’s OK, and Not OK, to Meddle”
“Quoting Well, Part 3: “Dot Dot Dot” [on ellipsis]