“Never end a paragraph with a quotation.”
“Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.”
“Never use the passive voice.”
“Never use first person.”
Whether you heard them in high school, in a first-year college writing course, or not at all, there are numerous—possibly endless—rules of formal writing style that start with the word “never.” “Never” has the magic power of catching attention, but its power is weakened by the fact that it doesn’t really mean itself, and you can always find plenty of counterexamples by reputable authors.
And indeed, most nevers of writing style (not to be confused with out-and-out mistakes, like writing “defiantly” when you mean “definitely”) are subject to creative and effective rule breakage at certain times. In fact, “never” in this context really means something more like “Avoid . . .” or “Don’t usually . . .” or “Question your impulse to . . .” or “Be aware that some people will be annoyed with your writing if you . . . .”
The more flexibility a rule has, however, the more important it is that you pay close attention to its usage before you take advantage of that flexibility. Or to put it another way: You can’t creatively and effectively break a rule you don’t know how to follow.
Further, when you break rules before you’re fully accustomed to following them, the breakage isn’t creative and effective; it’s just a mistake.
Let’s spend a few posts talking about these guidelines, why you should try to follow them, and when, why, and whether you can bend them. Instead of “nevers,” we’re going to call these “seldoms.” This week’s seldom is:
Seldom End a Paragraph with a Quotation
This tip applies mostly to literature reviews and other types of academic material in which the author quotes previous research at length. It does not apply to dialogue-filled fiction or certain types of journalism (such as magazine articles and interviews), in which you’ll have many paragraphs ending in quotations, if not consisting entirely of quotations.
I believe it’s the type of never that developed not because it can’t be done—indeed, the paragraph-ending quotation is ubiquitous in some genres and fields—but for two reasons. First, the thought process behind trying not to do it can tremendously improve one’s writing, especially one’s application of quotations. Second, writers who aren’t trained to minimize their paragraph-ending quotations are often apt to do it relentlessly, and it can quickly become a dull and lazy habit.
In other words, it became a never only because when it comes to style, high school and first-year college writers are more likely to internalize rules than suggestions.
Here’s an example of what this type of quotation placement might look like:
Previous research into the sociocultural aspects of miniature golf has focused primarily on the gender, race, and age makeup of the sport’s participants and very little on economic class. “There are many examples of leisure activities that we find to be largely beyond the reach of the very poor and somewhat beneath the interest of the very wealthy” (Flynn 2003, 42).
This passage begins with a pretty standard observation that something is lacking in the research that the paper will address. It follows this observation up with a quote that seems to be related to the initial mention of economic class. However, the quotation is not about miniature golf in particular but about leisure activities in general, and although the wording is catchy (if I do say so myself), there is nothing concrete or evidence-based about the claim. What’s more, because no effort is made to explain or contextualize the quote, readers are left hanging. The responsibility falls to them to figure out what kind of connections the author wants them to make.
In fact, it kind of looks like the author wants the Flynn quote to deliver the impact in the paragraph, but any impact it offers in reality is based on its turn of phrase and not on any actual content. There are types of writing in which you can get away with such a maneuver, but academic writing, by and large, isn’t one of them. While there’s nothing wrong with spicing your research up with witty phrasing, it cannot stand in for concrete connections and solid claims. The passage would be much stronger if the quote were used—if it must be used at all—in a way that frames it properly.
Previous research into the sociocultural aspects of miniature golf has focused primarily on the gender, race, and age makeup of the sport’s participants and very little on economic class. Flynn (2003) describes a certain type of leisure activity as “largely beyond the reach of the very poor and somewhat beneath the interest of the very wealthy” (42) and elsewhere suggests that one characteristic such leisure activities often possess is “kitschiness” (64). In this paper, I will be exploring the popularity of miniature golf through an economic lens to address whether it does in fact attract a primarily middle-income participant base, taking particular note of whether the property of kitschiness, defined below, contributes to income-based correlations.
The amount of additional contextualization that I’ve added to this example isn’t always necessary; you might need more or you might need less. Some explanatory text, however, enhances your quotation and ties it more clearly into your thesis.
Note that it isn’t just about inserting additional information (although that’s part of it). The fact that the paragraph is longer is not what’s more functional about it. I wrote the longer example with the question in mind, “What does this quote contribute to my argument or research?” If you can answer that question, you can use your quotation as a springboard toward gaining a more thoroughly fleshed-out view of your own points. That is, the most productive thing you can do when you see you’ve put a quotation at the end of a paragraph is, on the next draft, to push yourself to analyze that quotation further.
This type of work can be done with quotations anywhere in the text, but in my experience editing dissertations by PhD candidates from a vast range of fields, the quotations that get tacked on to the end of paragraphs are usually the ones that have received the least analysis.
Nonetheless, ending a paragraph with a quotation isn't always a horrible thing or a mistake. Sometimes the quotation is fully analyzed, but the analysis appears earlier in the paragraph. Sometimes the discussion of the quotation is held over to the following paragraph. Occasionally—though here's where the "don't try to break rules you can't follow" guideline is key—the quotation doesn't actually need further analysis because it does have the strength to stand on its own.
The following passage appears in a book I happen to be reading right now, Lincoln Legends by Edward Steers, Jr.:
At four he stops, feeling the need for a breath of fresh air. Lincoln leaves the White House alone and begins a slow stroll, his mind consumed in thought, unaware of where he is walking. Suddenly "at a corner, from behind a hedge, a young boy of fifteen years or so came rushing toward him and tripped and stumbled against him" (Andrews 1907, 22).
This portion of text by Edward Steers is a summary of the quoted work by Mary Andrews. Steers's purpose in quoting the older material is to introduce a snippet of the text into his rendering of the narrative. Placing a quotation at the end of a paragraph works fine here because Steers only continues the same thought as he proceeds into the next paragraph. In addition, there is no analysis in this type of summary, so it would be awkward and against the passage's grain for him to stop and explain how and why he is engaging Andrews's work.
It's important to note, though, that there is analysis of this quote and the rest of the work it came from; it just comes later in the chapter. But here, the guideline about ending a paragraph with a quotation doesn't apply because neither the writing style nor the research goal accommodates it.
Knowing whether your writing context is more similar to the miniature golf example or the Lincoln example is a matter of following the guideline of not ending a paragraph with a quotation until you're so accustomed to using it that when you do break it, you know you're doing so creatively and effectively.
I'm a proponent of the guideline, not as a never but as a seldom, because using it appropriately will make academic writers more conscious of the process of writing in general and the analysis and intelligent use of quotations in particular, which is a useful skill to have in producing scholarly material.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.