How to Use (And Not Abuse) Direct and Indirect Quotes, Part Two

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This is Part Two in a two-part series on using direct and indirect quotes. Read Part One here.

By Tiffany Fox

Quotations (also known in journalism as direct quotes and indirect quotes) help to humanize science and often add much-needed emotional contrast. They provide a sense for the “characters” in our stories – what drives them, how they speak and how they relate to the world. Many times – especially when a source is particularly charismatic or cantankerous – the use of quotes can mean the difference between a stuffy, boring technical piece and a story that vibrates with life. But it’s important to know how to use quotes effectively, and for that, we offer these tips:

  • In American English, punctuation goes inside the quotation marks when it is part of the actual quote. Example: “Stand back! I’m doing science!” she said. Generally you will end a quote with a comma before using “said.” Example: “Our Bunsen Burners are older than our advisor,” she said.
    • Exception: If the terminal punctuation is not part of the quotation, it goes outside the quotation marks. Example: Have most senators even seen “An Inconvenient Truth”?
    • Semi-colons, colons and dashes also go outside the quote if they are not part of the quotation. Example: The researcher shrugged and said, “I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to work” – right before the mouse successfully completed the task.
    • A quote within a quote uses single quotation marks. Example: “I like to joke with my friends they should ‘come on up and see me sometime,’” says astronaut Mark Kelly.
  • If a quote is very long, make sure the attribution comes early in the quote so we know who is talking, and consider breaking up the quote into two or more paragraphs (it’s best not to exceed two). Put closing marks only on the last paragraph. For example:
    •  In “Atomic War or Peace,” Albert Einstein wrote: “The release of atomic energy has not created anew problem. It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.“One could say that it has affected us quantitatively, not qualitatively. As long as there are sovereign nations possessing great power, war is inevitable.”
  • If you must “fix” a quote to ensure it makes sense or that the reader knows what is being referred to, use parentheses, but do so sparingly. Example: “It was appalling the way (Alan Turing) was treated by the British government.” The direct quote might have been “It was appalling the way he was treated,” but in the context it might not be clear who “he” is.
  • Use [sic] to indicate that print material you are quoting contained an error. Example: She posted a message to her followers on Twitter saying “There [sic] decision to only include male speakers and panelists at the annual conference is the reason I am withdrawing my offer to serve as the keynote speaker.”
  • If a quote is unclear or adds nothing to the story, get rid of it. Every quote should serve a purpose.

Have other tips and techniques? Add them in the comments!

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