Skip to Main Content

Today's hours:

See all library hours »

  • Ask a Librarian
  • FAQ

Going to the Source:

A resource provided by collaboration between the College Libraries, the Writing Center, and the Faculty


Quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing sources: a quick guide

You may borrow words and ideas through direct quotation, summary, or paraphrase. To provide examples of these three basic ways of borrowing other people’s ideas, we’ll start with a familiar text. Note that the text below is a block quote: because it’s more than three lines long (some disciplines use a standard of 40 words or longer), indentation is used instead of quotation marks.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.5

Direct quotation is most effective when you need to borrow someone’s succinct or pithy idea, or when you want readers to attend to the vocabulary, tone, and voice of the original. Here are two among many ways you could directly quote Abraham Lincoln’s words:

  • The United States was “conceived in Liberty,” Lincoln claimed; “the proposition that all men are created equal” was its key founding principle.6

  • Lincoln argued, “our fathers brought forth . . . a new nation, [based on] . . . the proposition that “all men are created equal.” 7

Whenever you borrow three or more words in a row, put them in quotation marks. Note, in the second example above, how you can alter a quotation if you use brackets and ellipses to indicate that you have done so.

Original one- or two-word concepts also need citation but may be placed in italics rather than quotation marks. Some terms–such as Svetlana Boym’s reflective nostalgia or Joseph Nye’s soft power–retain close association with their originators.8 Others, such as global warming, may have come into general usage and no longer need citation, though it is still wise to pay attention to whose de nition of such a term you are using. When in doubt, the Oxford English Dictionary, available online as a database in the Vassar Library, may provide clues.9

The act of quoting a source does not by itself prove your argument. Frame each quotation, introducing it as a piece of evidence and explaining how it supports your analysis. Be careful about long block quotations: they can be valuable, but using too many of them may suggest that you need to develop your own analysis more.

Summary works best when you need to condense or synthesize. Here is one way you might summarize part or all of Lincoln’s words:

Lincoln asserted that liberty and equality are our nation’s founding principles.10

You must provide a citation even if you summarize a source rather than quoting it directly.

You may also summarize multiple points of view, as in this example:

How can anyone express the full essence of the Gettysburg Address, when scholars have variously traced its origins and inspirations . . . to everything from classical oratory (Nicholas Cole) to native democratic ideals (Sean Wilentz) . . . to the unavoidable pall of wartime death and suffering (Chandra Manning, Mark Schwantz)?11

A summary may look different in some disciplines: see Part IV.

Paraphrase is a restatement of another person’s idea, argument, or conclusion in your own words. This can be tricky to accomplish without plagiarism. When done correctly, a paraphrase recontextualizes the original idea; you can’t just change a few vocabulary choices while copying the thread of someone’s argument. Here are two examples of paraphrases that are TOO CLOSE to the original:

The United States, according to Lincoln, was committed to the proposition that all men are created equal.12

Eighty-seven years ago the nation’s founders created the United States, basing its new government on the principle of liberty and the idea that all humans are equal.13

Closely paraphrasing a source--rather than summarizing or directly quoting it--can put you at risk for plagiarism in some disciplines but is acceptable in others. Ask your instructors about practices in different academic fields.

The second example uses almost no direct quotations from the original but nonetheless mimics its sequence of ideas. For this reason, many humanities and social science instructors may advise you to avoid paraphrase: direct quotation or summary is safer.

5 Abraham Lincoln, “Address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863,” Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1859-1865, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), 536.

6 Lincoln, “Address at Gettysburg,” 536. This is an example of the short form for subsequent references, after a full rst citation like the one in note 5, above. Depending on circumstances you may also choose to mark subsequent citations with Ibid. and op cit., if you have learned how, but these can be confusing; check with your professor on whether to use them. 7 Lincoln, “Address at Gettysburg,” 536.

8 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001) [Available in the Vassar College Libraries:]; Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990). [Available in the Vassar College Libraries:]

9 Many sources, for example, credit geochemist Wallace S. Broecker with inventing the term global warming in 1975, but the Oxford English Dictionary identifies uses of the term as early as 1952. Wallace S. Broecker, “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” Science, New Series, Vol. 189, No. 4201 (Aug. 8, 1975), 460-463; “global warming, n.” OED Online. Accessed 12 December 2015, Oxford University Press.

10 Lincoln, “Address at Gettysburg,” 536.

11 Harold Holzer, “Introduction,” in The Gettysburg Address, ed. Sean Conant (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) [Available at the Vassar College Libraries:]. In this quotation Holzer summarizes four essays in the same volume: Nicholas P. Cole, “Classical Democracy and the Get- tysburg Address,” 3-23; Sean Wilentz, “Democracy at Gettysburg,” 51-71; Chandra Manning, “Shared Suffering and the Way to Gettysburg,” 126-146; Mark S. Schantz, “Death and the Gettysburg Address,” 107-125.

12 Lincoln, “Address at Gettysburg,” 536.

13 Lincoln, “Address at Gettysburg,” 536.