Category Archives: citing evidence

Two kinds of citation errors:  not citing paraphrases and summaries, and using the wrong punctuation

Students make several kinds of errors when using citations in their research papers.

One error is thinking that only direct quotations need to be cited.  Not so.  Direct quotations, paraphrases and summaries all need to be cited.

  • A direct quote is a reproduction of the precise words of a speaker or document. Shorter direct quotes of a phrase or a sentence are preferred to longer direct quotes of several sentences.  Direct quotes are used when the original words are iconic (Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, and for the people”) and when the original words have a stronger impact than a paraphrase (Churchill’s “We shall never surrender.”)
  • A paraphrase is a “translation” of a direct quote into synonyms using different sentence structure from the original direct quotation. A paraphrase “translates” only a small portion of a speaker’s words or of a document.  Paraphrases are used to make difficult ideas easier to understand or to simplify long, complex thoughts.  Many teachers today prefer paraphrasing to quoting directly.
  • A summary is a straightforward repetition of the main ideas of a speaker or document. A summary presents longer amounts of information than a paraphrase and usually follows the same idea order as the original.

Direct quotations, paraphrases and summaries all need to be cited.  If the original source of  material you are using in your essay or research paper is not you, you need to give that source credit.  Not to do so is plagiarism, which I will discuss in a future blog.

Another error—the most common error—is to use improper punctuation in your essay or research paper.  In the United States, three commonly used documentation “styles” of citing information are the MLA, the APA, and the Chicago Manual (sometimes known as the Turabian).  If you are not familiar with “styles,” ask your teacher to explain the one you need to use.  You can find information online as well.  The MLA style is used in English courses and  in other language courses.  The APA style is used in the social sciences.  The Chicago style is used in history, social sciences and humanities courses.

Whole books are written on each of these styles, so I will not attempt to explain them here.  But let me take one example so you know what I am talking about.  Suppose you quote the author of a book in the text of your paper.  How do you show that citation?  For the MLA style, immediately after the quotation, you key an introductory parentheses, the author’s surname, the page number from which the quote came, an ending parentheses, and a period to end the sentence (Smith 368).  For the APA style, after the quotation you key an introductory parentheses, the author’s surname, a comma, then the year the quotation was made, an ending parentheses, and a period if you are ending a sentence (Smith, 2007).  For the Chicago style, a numeral 1 is placed after the quote, and a footnote is written in a footnotes section of the paper to identify complete information about the quote’s source.

You may think, you gotta be kidding!  No.  As you go through middle grades, high school and certainly college, you need to become familiar with various styles and to use them correctly.  Fortunately, online sources exist where you can input your source’s information and the website will order and punctuate the information correctly.  Swipe, copy, and paste into your paper.

Three wrong ways to introduce a citation

Suppose you are researching how the novel To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed when it first was published.  You find the July 13, 1960, review by Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times. In the review you find words worth citing.  How do you introduce the citation?  Let’s look at some examples, returning to the image of the hamburger and bun.

[First, you introduce your source, the top bun of the hamburger:]  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  [Second, you introduce the citation, the hamburger:]  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  [Third, you give your opinion why this citation is significant, the bottom bun of the hamburger:]  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

Now, let’s leave out the bracketed information:  The New York Times reviewed To Kill a Mockingbird when the book came out.  It says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  The Times writer singles out both the novel’s writer and its message.

What’s wrong?  Several things.  First, did The New York Times review Mockingbird or did a person?  If it was a person, the name of that person should be identified.  Second, can you, the research paper writer, identify the date when the review was published?  If so, including that specific information increases the credibility of your source.  And third, since a pronoun needs to have an antecedent, what is the antecedent to “It,” the first word of the second sentence?  There is none.

Better:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Mitgang says Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Suppose we keep the “better” citation with one change:  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  Here it is.  Mockingbird is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

Here what is?  The last noun in the previous sentence is “novel.”  Yet “Here it is” does not refer to the novel.  “Here it is” refers to the review.  “Here it is” is a poor transition from the upper bun of the hamburger to the hamburger itself.

Let’s try again with another change.  The New York Times published a book review by Herbert Mitgang of To Kill a Mockingbird on July 13, 1960, when the novel was published.  The quote is “a winning first novel by a fresh writer with something significant to say.”  Mitgang singles out both the novel’s writer and its message for praise.

The word “The” before the word “quote” indicates a particular quotation.  Yet no particular quotation is mentioned in the previous sentence.  “The quote” refers back to nothing.  An improvement would be, “A quote from that review” but even that improvement is not as good as naming the person doing the quoting.

When you are introducing a direct quote,

  • Introduce the quotation with the name of the person or organization responsible for the quote. For example, The US Congress passed an act which says, “. . .”
  • Identify additional details to put the quote in context. Such details could be a date, a place, or the context (a war, an election, a first novel, after the passage of 30 years).
  • Don’t use “It says” unless “it” has been identified and “it” identifies who is responsible for the quote. Even then, your writing is better if you remove the pronoun “it” and use the noun.
  • Don’t use “The quote is” unless you have already identified the quote in some way. Even then, use more specific language, usually naming the source of the quote, for a better transition.

Three parts of an effective citation

In the past two blogs, I have discussed citations:

  • What comes first, the idea or the citation?
  • What are citations? and
  • Why do we use citations?

Today I would like to discuss the correct way to introduce a citation into your writing.

Incorporating citations, whether direct quotes, indirect quotes or paraphrases, can be difficult when you start.  You may not have read the kind of writing—academic, scientific—which routinely uses citations.  And you may not have been taught how to insert citations.

One good place to start is with an image of a hamburger in a bun.  The top part of the bun represents the the identity of your source, and if that person or document is not well known, the credentials of that source; the hamburger represents the quote or paraphrase of the quote; and the bottom part of the bun represents your reasons for citing that particular information in your research paper.

For example, suppose you are writing a paper on the meaning of democracy.  You want to quote Abraham Lincoln’s definition from his Gettysburg Address.  You could introduce your citation (the top part of the bun) by writing, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as. . .”  This introduction tells who said the original citation (Lincoln) and for what purpose (addressing an audience in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania).  If you quote someone who is not readily known to your readers, you need to identify that person or document being quoted.

The hamburger part of the image is Lincoln’s definition of democracy: “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  You don’t need to quote a whole sentence—just the part which meets your needs.  You might need to rewrite your introductory information to make it work grammatically with your quote.

The bottom part of the bun is your understanding of the quote and why you consider it relevant.  A possible example is “This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

The finished quotation is “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’  This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

After reading this citation, the readers of your paper know who is being cited, that person’s actual words, and why you think those words are a good definition of democracy.

To recap:

To use a direct quotation, you must put it in context by identifying who made the direct quote and why it is relevant in the context you are using it.

The transition from your introductory information to the quotation must use correct grammar.

Sometimes words of the direct quote must be left out or changed slightly (for example, from singular to plural, from one verb tense to another, from one pronoun to another).

In my next blog, I will discuss common errors students make in including citations in their work.

What are citations? Why do we use them?

What are citations?

Citations have two parts.  One part is a direct quote taken from a text or online text.  The other part identifies the text in a particular way so your readers can find the original quote if they want to.

Why do we use citations?

Citations allow you, the writer, to show that experts agree with your thinking.  Your ideas are not yours alone; they are supported by respected experts.

Citations give credit to the expert sources you use.  Citations let your readers know where you found the experts who agree with you.  Citations allow your readers to trace back your sources which they might want to know more about.

Citations make your claims more believable.  By using citations, you are being up front with your readers, telling them exactly who your sources are.

Citations protect you against plagiarism.  If you quote or even paraphrase the ideas of others without identifying them, you can be accused of plagiarism, a serious offense in the academic world.

Who uses citations?

Beginning in middle school, students learn what citations are and how to use them, usually using sources that a teacher provides.  By high school, students are expected to write research papers in which they must identify sources they have searched for.  In college, graduate school and in postgraduate work, students and professionals use citations when they write scholarly papers, master’s degree theses and doctoral dissertations.

But you might think you aren’t going to college, so why do you need to learn citations.  First, you might change your mind about your career goals, so schools want you prepared.  Second, by knowing what citations are, and why they are used, you are better able to judge the credibility of what you read.  If a politician makes a claim, for example, you might wonder where his information comes from.  Or you might realize that a friend can’t tell you where his “facts” come from.  You will be more aware of fraudulent claims.

Examples of citations used in text

Here are some examples of citations I used in my master’s thesis, Do Teacher Comments on Homework Matter?  The first one paraphrases information without using a direct quotation, but the source is still given.

  • One of the earliest entries in 20th century literature regarding homework is a 1913 Ladies’ Home Journal cover feature calling on parents to abolish homework in the public schools. . . .The article quotes principal after anonymous principal who say that homework is a waste of time (Ladies’ Home Journal, 1913).

Here are two citations that use a direct quote:

  • Goldstein found that doing homework does contribute to educational achievement. “The data in most of the studies suggest that regularly assigned homework favors higher academic achievement, and a few of the best-designed experiments show this quite clearly” (Goldstein, 1960).
  • Cooper (1989). . . .writes that “homework probably involves the complex interaction of more influences than any other instructional device” (p. 87).

In the “References” section of my thesis, more complete information is given about each of the citations.  For example, the entry for Cooper reads “Cooper, H. (1989).  Synthesis of Research on Homework.  Educational Leadership, 47(3), 85-91.”

In the actual text part of a research paper, a short identification of the source is given.  In the References section (sometimes called Bibliography), a complete identification is given.  Both a short identification within the text and a complete identification in the References section are necessary for a complete citation.

What comes first, the idea or the citation?

When you plan a vacation, what do you do first?  Do you decide where to go—to the beach, to a Broadway play, to Graceland—or do you pack your skies?

Likewise, when you are given a topic to write about by your teacher—for example, Who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?—what do you do first?  Do you consider which characters might be responsible?  Or do you search for a citation—any citation—and work backward from the citation to a person responsible?

I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers expect their students to start by thoughtfully considering who might be responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths.  Could it be impetuous Romeo who cannot wait to have sex with Juliet?  Could it be Juliet’s father, who is forcing Juliet to marry Paris against her will?  Could it be hotheaded Tybalt, who starts a sword fight which leads to Romeo being banished?

I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers do not want their students to read a given source material, find a good quote, and base their whole essay on that one quote.

But last week, a ninth grader I tutor, instead of considering who might be most responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths, started organizing his essay by searching the sources his teacher supplied for words which said someone—anyone—is responsible.  Then he based his essay on that information which he cited.

In discussing my student’s approach, I learned my student really thought that to write an essay using citations he should start with a citation (or in his case, three citations) and go backwards in search of a thesis that would incorporate those three citations.  As a result, his thesis was three-pronged and vacuous.  His essay did not contain a central, controlling idea.

What happened here?

  • Did his teacher think a previous teacher taught him how to write using citations? Did she think she didn’t need to teach that all over again?
  • Did his teacher think she didn’t need to sequence the process of writing an essay using citations? Did she think that of course the student would know to start with the idea and then find supporting information?
  • Did my student miss the main idea of using citations, that they back up—support—prove—ideas?
  • Was my student taking the lazy way out—or so he thought—by finding a citation first?

Whatever.  From this experience, I learned that

  • Teaching how to use citations begins with why we use citations—to have outside, often expert sources back up our ideas.
  • Teaching how to write an essay using citations is necessary even if other teachers have already taught the process.
  • Students need to practice using citations over and over until they get it. Writing one essay in eighth grade and another in ninth grade is not enough.
  • Students must have an idea first before looking for experts to back it up.
  • Teachers need to say that starting with a citation and then backtracking to an idea or a thesis will probably lead to a weak, poorly written essay and a low grade.