How to use direct quotes in essays | Homeschool high school

Are your teens ready for college-level writing? Teach homeschool high schoolers how to use direct quotes in essays and research reports.

Are your homeschool high schoolers ready for college-level writing? One test is whether they know how to use direct quotes in essays and term papers. I’m not talking about tossing one or two overused, ancient proverbs or a boring dictionary definition in the intro paragraph. I’m talking about the big “R” – research!

Providing Evidence through Direct Quotes

Elementary children learn to write summaries. They absorb information and spill it back on paper in their own words. In high school, our homeschooled teens meet new expectations, such as studying source texts and creating their own unique opinion (a thesis statement).

Students must use solid evidence to defend every point in a thesis statement. Consider a news article. A journalist may make strong assertions, such as:

The police department will take drastic measures to prevent future incidents.

We’re more likely to believe this statement if it’s followed by a quote from an authority:

Police Chief John Hardy announced that “until further notice, department officers will no longer be permitted to wear uniforms while off duty.”

Now the writer has offered evidence.

High school and college essays and research papers require evidence. If your daughter is writing about Jane Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, she must include words from the author’s (or the character’s) own mouth. If your son’s essay centers on Northern attitudes toward slavery during the Civil War, he should avoid generalizations by including quotes from key figures of that era.

Punctuating a Quote: Comma or Colon?

The following four examples use correct punctuation. Can your homeschoolers guess why?

Example 1. Elizabeth calmly replies, “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing.”

Example 2. “Indeed, sir, I have not the least intention of dancing,” Elizabeth replies.

In Examples 1 and 2, the quotation is set off by a comma. Grammar rules tell us to always use a comma after a verb such as said, asked, or replied when it appears just before a quote.

Example 3. Elizabeth Bennet holds her tongue about her awkward suitor: “Mr. Collins might never make the offer, and, till he did, it was useless to quarrel about him.”

Example 4. Elizabeth wisely understands that her cousin “might never make the offer, and, till he did, it was useless to quarrel about him.”

Example 3 uses a colon because the quoted sentence conveys a complete thought.

But in Example 4, the quote needs no commas or colons at all to set it off because of the little word that. When writers use that, they can start the quotation mid-sentence—without ellipses or a capital letter.

Rule of Thumb

Don’t use a colon unless there are at least seven words before the quotation.

A Note about Tense

Using the Block Quote

A block quotation is set apart with a special indent and no quotation marks. Use the block-quotation format to quote several consecutive sentences – or one especially long and complex sentence.

Rule of Thumb

Use a block quote when the quotation is five lines or longer.

Block Quote or Quotation Marks?

In the blogosphere, block quotes often appear in political or religious commentaries. In high school English essays, block quotes are effectively used to write about drama and poetry.

Like dessert, block quotes should be served occasionally. Too many can give the impression that a writer is lazy, trying to fill the page with words that are not his own.

Consider this block quotation from Robert Frost’s poem “Birches”:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

If I used ellipses to shorten the above poem, it would work nicely with quotation marks: “It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood . . . .”

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

Plagiarism is a growing concern in colleges and universities across the nation. Prepare your homeschool teens by teaching them to be above board as a writer—including how to use direct quotes in essays and research papers.

If a student uses someone else’s idea, he can avoid plagiarism by quoting their words or mentioning their name. If he references someone else’s book, article, or webpage, he must include that source in a “Bibliography” or “Works Cited” page.

Teachers and professors may have slightly different guidelines, but MLA citation format is a good place to start. 

Our favorite resource on writing standards is A Pocket Style Manual. Compact and easy to use, it makes a great addition to your homeschool reference library.

Teach homeschool high schoolers how to use direct quotes in essays. With thoughtful research, well-chosen quotations and careful citations, their writing will be ready for the college campus … and beyond.

Daniella Dautrich is a homeschool and WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. Parents of two young daughters, Daniella and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science.

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