The Gentle Art of Quoting Effectively

Robert Pearce, the editor of History Review, responds to common questions.


Are quotes – or should it be ‘quotations’? – valuable in history? How do I use them?


The dictionary insists that ‘quotation’ is the noun and ‘quote’ the verb. On the other hand, dictionaries merely catalogue usages current at the time they were compiled, and since so many people use ‘quote’ as a noun, what was originally a silly error is being accepted as correct these days. My own advice is that everyone should use ‘quote’ as a noun – but only when we see the Oxford Dictionary of Quotes for sale.

Quotations are indeed extremely valuable, and every student of history should learn how to deploy them effectively. They are evidence from the past, and without evidence history becomes almost indistinguishable from fiction, or fantasy. They also give a stamp of authority to essays, as well as adding interest. Browse through several articles in this magazine – noting where quotations are used and asking what effect they have – and you will see what I mean. You really can’t write a decent essay without quoting.

At this stage, it is worth cataloguing some of the errors into which students often fall when using quotations:

  • A common failing is that students quote but fail to acknowledge that they are quoting. If you insert a passage from someone else’s work into your own, without quotation marks, you are guilty of plagiarism – and dire penalties, too distressing to catalogue here, are liable to fall on your head.
  • Often quotation marks are used faultily. In British English, we can use single or double inverted commas, but having decided on your choice you should stick to it – and use the alternative only for quotations within quotations (as below). This is an easy rule, but many students and many teachers seem unaware of it.
  • ‘Churchill quoted, “We will fight them on the beaches …”’ Wrong. Most examiners have come across this incorrect usage. Be sure you don’t make the mistake. Churchill was merely saying, you are quoting.
  • Quotations must be accurate. It’s all too easy to misquote, perhaps missing out a word or two, or inflicting faulty grammar or punctuation on to a historical figure. Hence you must always check and make a real effort to be 100 per cent accurate. If you aren’t sure about the precise wording, paraphrase instead of quoting (Churchill insisted that the British should fight the enemy on the beaches and even on the streets).
  • Quotations should not be italicised: only words italicised in the original should be in italics.
  • Quotations of more than four or five lines should be indented (i.e. have a left-hand margin wider than that used in the rest of your essay). Indented quotations should not be italicised, though you can use a new font if you want to make them stand out.
  • Quotations are valuable, but do not quote at too great a length. Quotations should support your argument: they are not a substitute for an argument.

What should you quote? Since A-level boards often demand that students are familiar with the historiography of a topic, many students quote historians’ views, and do so at great length. Essays sometimes degenerate into a catalogue of conflicting views, with the ‘correct’ interpretation being the one with the most historians in favour of it – or perhaps the newest. This way of reasoning is essential unhistorical, and really rather childish. As students of history we should be sceptical, never accepting a view just because some ‘authority’ has said it. Instead we must think for ourselves and argue our own case. Hence it’s probably best to paraphrase historians’ views, and certainly you must quote real evidence – the evidence from which historians have formulated their arguments.

All quotations can be valuable, but the best quotations in history are those phrased with an artistry that makes them memorable. ‘Serve God by serving the Queen, for all other service is indeed bondage to the Devil.’ Here is a brilliant and concise expression of William Cecil’s political philosophy. So much is packed into it that it demands a sentence of two of explanation. Such a combination of quotation + explanation will score highly in examinations. (What brief explanation might you add to Hitler’s celebrated remark, after leaving Landsberg prison, that the Nazis ‘must hold our noses and enter the Reichstag’?)

Quotations do not speak for themselves. Nor are they a sure-fire route to good grades. But effectively deployed quotations, carefully chosen to support your argument and sensibly interpreted or explained, will go a long way towards helping you secure top marks. In addition, they will make your work not only more enjoyable to read but much more fun to write. Try it and see!

Robert Pearce is the editor of History Review.