Writer's WebSample Quotations

Let's examine how a quotation can be taken out of context, and why careful reading of your sources matters. Here's a passage from an essay written just after the air war against Iraq began. Read it, and see if you can decide what the author's "thesis" might be:

"Thus, though the firepower of contemporary militaries appears to be going off the scale, in some respects smart weapons are less cruel than what they supplant (Easterbrook 19)."

If reader who was preparing a paper on the Gulf War stopped reading Easterbrook's article, "Robowar," here, she might be tempted to believe Easterbrook supports the use of "smart weaponry" and "precision bombing."

In the next paragraph, however, Easterbrook notes "let's have no illusions about what this equipment might accomplish in a war against a nation that could strike back" (19). How does this quotation change your interpretation of Easterbrook's thesis? A writer who used Easterbrook's first quotation without considering his other arguments could misrepresent Easterbrook's opinion.

Often writers scrambling for "evidence" to support a point will not only misrepresent a source, but also overuse quotations and examples from it. Here's a sample from our hypothetical Gulf War essay that falls into several traps:

Even as American jets began to neutralize Iraqi defenses, several analysts began to question the effectiveness of the Air Force's and Navy's advanced weaponry. [1] "Already B-52s are raining old-fashioned wide-area destruction on Iraqi troops. . . who are surely suffering grisly deaths off-camera" (Easterbrook 20). [2] Michael Kelly writes, "You couldn't turn around without seeing something taken out" (21). And another writer noted that President Bush remarked "These weapons are miraculous, but we can't lead people to believe that we've hit every target" (Barnes 16).

This passage could potentially provide a very thoughtful analysis of the idea expressed in the first sentence, but the paragraph ends up as a string of quotations with very little of the writer's own interpretation or analysis. Worst of all, the passage has a quotation "dropped in" without an introduction or transitional statement at [1], and a quotation that contradicts the writer's topic sentence at [2].

Let's now turn to an effective revision of the same material.

Even as American jets began to neutralize Iraqi defenses, several analysts began to question the effectiveness of the Air Force's and Navy's advanced weaponry. When it came to hitting fixed targets such as buildings in Baghdad, Michael Kelly, who was in the Iraqi capital, recalled "You couldn't turn around without seeing something taken out" (21). Elsewhere, however, those directing Desert Storm resorted to less precise, and more devastating tactics. Easterbrook, otherwise impressed by the surgical precision of some weapons, also noted "Already B-52s are raining old-fashioned wide-area destruction on Iraqi troops. . . who are surely suffering grisly deaths off-camera" (20). Even President Bush admitted the less-than-perfect record of the "smart" weaponry, remarking to an aide, "these weapons are miraculous, but we can't lead people to believe that we've hit every target" (Barnes 16).

The writer has added more of her own words and interpretations to balance the quotations. She also introduces the quotations more creatively, avoiding the boring "He writes" "She states" brand of introduction. Whenever possible, this writer moves from her ideas directly into the quotation, as in the second and final sentences.

Note that Michael Kelly's quotation has been qualified, and the writer uses it as evidence to address readers who hold a contrary view to that expressed in the topic sentence. The revision also says something about Kelly's authority as a source; remember, anyone can posit an opinion, but a source's credibility comes from its writer's expertise or personal experience.

 

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