Using short quotes and block quotes in MLA

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Quotations (also known as quotes) are the exact words that are taken directly from a text and repeated by someone other than the original author. When you use the exact words and sentence structure as your source, you are quoting that source. When using quotes in your writing, you need to copy the words exactly as they appear in the source.

To quote the MLA Handbook, “the accuracy of quotations is crucial. They must reproduce the original sources exactly” (75).

Quotes should be used sparingly because the majority of the text should be your own ideas. Keep quotations short and to the point to keep your readers interested. Quotes are most effective when the exact words of the source are particularly well suited for your purposes and back up your own ideas.

Short quotes vs. block quotes

There are several ways to incorporate quotations into your text. You can include short quotes of four lines or less, which are incorporated into your text and are set off from the text with quotation marks.

If the section you wish to quote is longer than four lines, you can use a block quote. Block quotes are set off from the text in a separate paragraph that has larger indents at the left margin.

The MLA Handbook says this about quotes:

The accuracy of quotations is crucial. They must reproduce the original sources exactly. Unless indicated in square brackets or parentheses, changes must not be made in the spelling, capitalization, or interior punctuation of the source. You must construct a clear, grammatically correct sentence that allows you to introduce or incorporate a quotation with complete accuracy. Alternatively, you may paraphrase the original and quote only fragments, which may be easier to integrate into the flow of your writing (p. 75) .

The quote above from the MLA Handbook is formatted in block quote style.

When using quotes in your papers, you must include the author’s last name and the page number(s) from which the quotation is taken as an in-text citation, unless you have named the author is the sentence preceding the quote. A full reference should appear in your Works Cited page.

Block quotes

If you want to quote a section of text that is longer than four lines or a section of poetry that is longer than three lines, use a block quote. Block quotes are also used when quoting lines from a play.

You introduce the block quote with a sentence in your own words. You want to let your reader know who the quote is from and why you are including it.

Joan Didion ends her first chapter by laying out her goal for writing the book:

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, the weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself. (7)

How to format a block quote

  1. Lead into the quote with a summary sentence that lets the reader know why you are including the quote.
  2. End the sentence before quote with a colon (unless the grammatical connection between the sentence leading into the quote requires some other punctuation or none at all).
  3. Start a new line.
  4. Indent the quote ½ inch or 5 spaces from the left margin for the entire quote (not just the first line).
  5. Do not use quotation marks.
  6. Double space the quote.
  7. Put the in-text citation after the final punctuation mark in the quote.
  8. Comment on the quote after using it. Do not end a paragraph with a block quote. You should always have text after it.

Adding or omitting words in quotations

  • If you add words to a quotation, enclose them in brackets like [this].
  • If you omit words in a quotation, use an ellipsis, which is three periods separated by spaces ( . . . ) to show where the words were removed.

You may want to add or omit words in quotations to make them clearer, shorten them, or help them to fit grammatically into your sentence.

Additional block quote formatting for prose

  • If you are directly quoting one paragraph or part of one, do not indent the first line of the block quote more than the rest of the quote.
  • If you are quoting two or more paragraphs and the first sentence of the quote is also the first sentence of a paragraph in the source, indent the first line of each paragraph an additional ¼ inch or five spaces.
  • If the first sentence of a multi-paragraph quote is not the first sentence of a paragraph in the source, indent only the first line of the second paragraph ¼ inch or five spaces.

Formatting block quotes for poetry

Format it as you would prose unless the poem has unusual spacing or formatting.

  1. Indent ½ inch or 5 spaces from the left margin.
  2. Do not add any quotation marks unless they appear in the source.
  3. If the line of poetry does not fit on one line in the paper, continue it on the next line, but indent that line an additional ¼ inch or five spaces.
  4. When citing longer sections of poetry, keep the formatting as close to the original as possible.

In her poem, Rain, Mary Oliver describes the sensation of rain on a tree:

All afternoon it rained, then

such power came down from the clouds

on a yellow thread,

as authoritative as God is supposed to be.

When it hit the tree, her body

Opened forever. (3)

Formatting block quotes for drama/plays

Formatting quotes from plays has slightly different rules than prose and poetry.

To format dialogue from plays:

  1. Indent ½ inch or 5 spaces from the left margin.
  2. Begin with the name of the character speaking printed in all capital letters followed by a period.
  3. Start the quotation. If the line a character is saying needs more than one line, indent the subsequent lines a ¼ inch or five spaces.
  4. Some lines of dialogue start with extra spaces between the character name and the first line of dialogue. Print the dialogue exactly as it appears in the play, including the extra spaces.
  5. When the dialogue shifts to a new character, follow the pattern above.
  6. For the in-text citation, cite the act, scene, and line of the quote instead of the page number.

ROMEO.                                     By a name

I know not how to tell thee who I am.

My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,

Because it is an enemy to thee.

Had I it written, I would tear the word.

JULIET.   My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words

Of thy tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound.

Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?

ROMEO.   Neither, fair maid, if either thee dislike. (Shakespeare 2.2.54-61)

Works cited

Didion, Joan. A Year of Magical Thinking. Vintage International, 2006.

MLA Handbook, 8th Ed. Modern Language Association of America, 2016.

Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1. Beacon Press, 2004

Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” Arden Shakespeare, edited by René Weis. Bloomsbury, 2012, 118–338. Drama Online, doi: 10.5040/9781408160152.00000039.


Published October 27, 2020.

By Catherine Sigler. Catherine has a Ph.D. in English Education and has taught college-level writing for 15 years.


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