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Working with Sources

Working with sources is an essential skill in many college courses. In an English course, you may be asked to analyze a work of literature, such as The Great Gatsby, in which case, you would be working with quotations and paraphrased text from the novel and, possibly, outside biographies and works of criticism, as well.  In a history class you may be asked to write an essay about an important historical event; for example, the events leading up to U.S. involvement in the Second World War, in which case, you would need to back up your own conclusions with the work of respected scholars.  In an environmental biology class, you may need to write a paper on an environmental problem, such as the causes for the decline of the salmon population.  In this assignment, you would likely need to back up your analysis of the problem with research findings of environmental biologists.

To write successful analytical essays and research papers, students need to learn to work with quotes, paraphrase, and summary effectively. In this module, students will learn the skills and strategies necessary for effective incorporation of sources in their own work.


In this module, students will learn to

  • introduce quotes
  • correctly incorporate quotes into their own work
  • comment on quotes
  • correctly incorporate paraphrased material into their own work
  • correctly incorporate summaries of source material into their own work



Direct Quotes

In a direct quote, a writer uses the exact words of another person while clearly acknowledging that the words belong to that other person.  A direct quote is identified by quotation marks at the beginning and at the end of the quoted material, or by off-setting the quote from the main text in a "block quote" (when the quote is equivalent to 4 or more lines of text).

Why use a direct quote?

Writers use direct quotes for several reasons:

1) To back up assertions by citing an authority on the subject.

Public and private life were not as separate as they are today, and custom required households to produce the signs of being part of that public, social order in their own domestic space in the form of hospitality. As Rhyss Isaac says in his wonderful history of Virginia in the 18th century, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, "most of the dominant values of the culture were fused together in the display of hospitality, which was one of the supreme obligations that society laid upon heads of households." The ability of families to produce this display determined their moral and social status in the community.

2) To offer evidence for a claim.

In this moment Margaret sees what makes Howards End wonderful: it is human in scale—unlike London where one might be swept away in the tide of progress or the press of humanity—and it also protects, like a kindly parent:

The phantom of bigness, which London encourages, was laid for ever when she paced from the hall at Howards End to its kitchen and heard the rains run this way and that where the watershed of the roof divided them. (194)

3) To call attention to particularly beautiful, concise, or insightful language about a subject and deepen one's own discussion.

Howards End is a novel that is primarily about the longing for home. In her essay on setting in fiction, Eudora Welty says, “Location is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction that charge out from the story in its course.” The home at Howards End is Forster’s conductor.


Introducing Quotes

While a student may understand how to insert a quote into his or her own writing, if the student does not provide a clear transition into the quote and a thoughtful explanation of the significance of that quote to his or her argument, the reader will end up extremely frustrated. It is a big mistake to assume that the quote will simply speak for itself. Certainly, if the reader spends time wondering about the connection, a connection will probably appear; however, the reader should not have to do this work; introducing and explaining the significance of a quote is the writer's responsibility. Look at the difference in the way the following quotes are introduced:

Unfortunately, there is new evidence that suggests the possibility that cell phones cause brain tumors. A recent study reveals that “users who spend more than an hour a day talking on a mobile phone have a close to one-third higher risk of developing a rare form of brain tumor,” usually on the same side they hold the cell phone to their ear (Dr. Mercola).

To be safe, it is best to join in and become one of the Bud People as this eliminates the need to hold the cell phone to the head: “A new species, infrequently sighted but growing in number, the Bud People keep their phones hidden and have small earphones and tiny microphone” (Guernsey).

The second quote is not introduced, and so it is more difficult for the reader to know what to do with the quoted material. The writer puts the burden of communication on the reader, who must pause and figure out how the quote connects to the idea being developed in the paragraph.

Common signal phrases for introducing quotes:

There are several signal words that establish the relationship between a quote and the author's argument. Several of these words are listed below:



points out


Integrating a quote into your own sentence:

A quote can also be integrated directly into the structure of one's own sentence as long as the sentence is grammatically correct.  For example,

From a distance, seen from the green landscape of the surrounding countryside, Coketown is only a “black mist.”  More precisely, Dickens describes Coketown seen from afar as a town “shrouded in a haze of its own . . . impervious to the sun’s rays;  a dense formless jumble of smoke with sheets of cross light in it that show . .  nothing but masses of darkness”—an ominous prelude (85).

In particular, you will need to make sure that verb tenses are consistent if you incorporate a quote into the structure of your own sentence.  Use brackets around any words in the quote that you change:

Life in Coketown is dominated by simple truths:  “everything [is] severely workful,”  “a triumph of fact.”



Commenting on Quotes

Making the significance of a quote to your own argument clear to your reader is perhaps the most important part of working with quotes. Without this explanation, the reader will not know what to do with the quote, and as mentioned earlier, will feel frustrated with the writer for making the reader do the work of figuring out why the quote is important.

Explicating Quotes in a Literary Analysis:

Commenting on quotes is essential in literary analysis since it is the text itself that becomes the evidence for an interpretation. In fact, in literary analysis, a writer's job is to explicate, or "unfold" the meaning of the text, and show the reader the significance of particular words or events in a larger context.  For example, look at the way the writer explains the significance of particular language in Dickens' Hard Times in the following passage:

More than any other character in Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind, schoolmaster, politician, and father, represents faith in the Enlightened man and the mechanized world, but his triumph is his destruction.  Gradgrind is a man with “stiff-legged compasses . . .  meant to do great things” (165). . . . Tom and Louisa, Gradgrind’s model children, exemplify living according to their father’s system. Dickens says they were raised in a “statistical den” to learn to be “in all things regulated and governed by fact” and to use only “combinations and modifications of mathematical figures which are susceptible to proof and demonstration” just like their father (11).  They have never been exposed to the contaminating effects of literature; they learned to see a cow in a field as a specimen of “gramnivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs,” (provable, quantifiable, transparent) rather than the cow with the crumpled horn, or the cow who swallowed Tom thumb (magical, nonsense)

The writer's goal here is to characterize Gradgrind's value system as destructive and show that Dickens is critical of overly rational thought. To achieve this goal, the writer calls particular attention to the connotations of language like "gramnivorous ruminating quadruped" and explains how the language is overly rational and objective, excluding the magical and nonsensical experiences that are an important part of childhood. The evidence in the text is thus explained in such a way that it clearly illustrates this writer's argument.

Writers don't always need to supply in depth explanations of the significance of quotes; sometimes an introductory sentence is all that is needed:

Gradgrind’s system is well-intended; he sees knowing as power over nature.  It is no surprise, therefore, that he should object to Sissy’s world, the world of the circus which  might creep into the childrens’ imaginations and teach them “wonder, idleness and folly." 

"Wonder, idleness, and folly" are explained here as being what Gradgrind objects to as roadblocks to human authority and power over nature.

Note: Avoid beginning with statements like "As this quotation shows" and "As can be seen in this quote" to begin an explanation.  These phrases actually detract from your argument.  Just jump right in and focus on the meaningful words in the quote.  Also, always begin an explanation of a block quote flush with the left margin. Since you are continuing to discuss the quote, you are not beginning a new topic and, therefore, should not begin a new paragraph.



As a general rule, one should paraphrase rather than quote a text unless the language is particularly succinct or beautiful, or the words themselves carry significant meaning. Yet, good paraphrase is an art form. One must capture the essence of an author's meaning without borrowing the author's language. Below is an example of a correct paraphrase of an author's work followed by an incorrect paraphrase.  The original passage from E. M. Foster's novel, Howards End is presented first:

“I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father's house—it oughtn't to be allowed. It is worse than dying”  (Chapter 10).

Correct Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox is horrified at the thought that Margaret is to be cast out of her home. For Ruth, one's home is a part of one's own self.

Plagiarism in a Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox pities Margaret from the bottom of her heart, believing that being evicted from one's home is worse than dying.

The second example includes plagiarized text. Several words from the original text are used (or are very closely echoed) without acknowledgement.

Original Text:

She approached just as Helen's letter had described her, trailing noiselessly over the lawn, and there was actually a wisp of hay in her hands. She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her—that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy. High born she might not be. But assuredly she cared about her ancestors, and let them help her.


Ruth Wilcox is a reassuring, calming presence, a kind of mystic of Howards End who has learned to read the map to the past, and travel back and forth between past and present: Her role in the novel is to teach others who will listen (i.e., Margaret) to hear the voices of the past.  Indeed, the plot hinges on the fact that Ruth has willed Howards End to Margaret in whom she sees a spiritual heir. 

Plagiarism in a Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox has an instinctive wisdom bestowed upon her by her connection with the past. Her role in the novel is to teach others to hear the voices of the past.

To avoid plagiarism in paraphrase, write your paraphrase without looking at the original text.  Try to think of what the original text really expresses and attempt to capture that expression in your own words. 




Sometimes, as part of one's own argument, it is useful to summarize a writer's work. For example, in an essay about the alarming decline in the salmon population, a writer might find it useful to summarize the theories for this decline of various scientists, or in an essay on the culture of African slaves on southern plantations, a writer might summarize an archaologist's findings at the slave quarters of a Southern plantation. The key to an effective summary used as evidence is in emphasizing details that are important to your argument without distorting the original text.  (For more information on writing summaries, explore our module on Writing Summaries.)

Take a look at the following example of summary used as evidence. In this essay on the nature of "home" in today's culture, the writer discusses what home meant in other times, and she uses summary of a section of Rhyss Isaac's book, The Transformation of Virginia 1740-1790, to support her argument:

According to Isaac, Virginians in the mid-eighteenth century did not think of home as the safe, comfortable hideaway from public life that we expect it to be today. Instead, for these Virginians, one of the primary functions of the home was to represent the self to others in and outside of their own social group. In other words, public and private life were not as separate as they are today, and custom required households to produce the signs of being part of that public, social order in their own domestic space in the form of hospitality. As Isaac says, "most of the dominant values of the culture were fused together in the display of hospitality, which was one of the supreme obligations that society laid upon heads of households" (427). The ability of families to produce this display determined their moral and social status in the community.

With the sentence, "In other words, public and private life were not as separate as they are today . . . " the writer provides the context for understanding the text; she shows the reader how Isaac's argument about hospitality in the 18th century is useful in understanding what home is like today.






1. Why use a quote?

2. Introducing quotes

3. Commenting on quotes

4. Paraphrase

5. Summary

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