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I am finishing my dissertation, and my advisor was highly critical of my use of "floating quotations" or "stand-alone quotations." She directed me to a University of North Carolina webpage with advice for undergrad writers.

A floating quotation is a quotation that does not explicitly state its attribution. Here is what the UNC page says about floating quotations.

In general, avoid leaving quotes as sentences unto themselves. Even if you have provided some context for the quote, a quote standing alone can disrupt your flow. Take a look at this example:

Hamlet denies Rosencrantz’s claim that thwarted ambition caused his depression. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space” (Hamlet 2.2).

Standing by itself, the quote’s connection to the preceding sentence is unclear. There are several ways to incorporate a quote more smoothly.

I had never heard of this rule about floating quotations, nor had my wife, who was educated in a different part of the US. When I started looking into it, I found that the Chicago Style Guide did not mention floating quotations, nor did other mainstream style guides that I found.

However, I found several university writing webpages mention floating quotations as a problem.

In all the university writing webpages I have found, most of them suggest that the problem with floating quotations is a lack of clarity. However, the quote from the UNC page above is, to me, quite clear, there is no way to misinterpret it.

My question: are floating quotations a real problem, or is it a matter of personal preference? Is the proscription against their use universal, or is it just that some people think that this rule is good and assume that it is a universal rule?

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    Seriously? You're in grad school/postdoc, so kiss your advisor's butt, then do whatever you want once you move on.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 16 at 22:27
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    @DWKraus That's no reason not to ask the question! Aug 16 at 22:50
  • @DM_with_secrets I suppose. It could also be relevant to know which field they are in. English/lit majors are held to a different level of pickiness. They are certainly fine if it's fiction and the reader understands. In between gets murky.
    – DWKraus
    Aug 16 at 23:41
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General caveat: I come from a completely different academic field and do not aim to describe academic custom in general (which is very difficult given academia’s diversity), but rather to explain the problem.

Failing to connect sentences are a rather common mistake in academic writing and something I often criticise as a supervisor, peer reviewer, or similar. I have peer-reviewed papers where I could not understand important parts because of too many non-sequiturs. The reason behind such mistakes is most often that writers overestimate the readability of your text simply because you already know the structure or argument or have a certain intonation in mind.

Floating quotations are a clear example of this: Since a quote is obviously not your words, it is not a statement you are making. Therefore, without some kind of connecting tissue to the rest of the text, a quote has no function and thus is pointless (strictly speaking). Of course, readers may guess the quote’s purpose from context, but they shouldn’t have to, and in case of floating quotes they don’t need to since there are a lot of tools that allow you to embed the quote in its context, starting with the simple colon.

To take the example you quote:

Hamlet denies Rosencrantz’s claim that thwarted ambition caused his depression. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space” (Hamlet 2.2).

After reading the first sentence, I have no idea what is following. I first have to read the entire quote, make an educated guess who is speaking, read the first sentence again (or remember it), and then guess that the quote is supposed to substantiate the first sentence. I might accelerate things a bit by reading non-linearly, i.e., jumping to the end of the quote first to see where it’s from, etc., but that’s nothing you want to rely on as a writer.

Now, consider the alternative:

Hamlet denies Rosencrantz’s claim that thwarted ambition caused his depression: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space” (Hamlet 2.2).

Here the colon (and the fact that it’s followed by a quotation mark) tells me a lot of things the moment I reach the end of the first sentence: What follows is said by Hamlet, and whatever Hamlet says is supposed to express what you described before, i.e., that he denies that his thwarted ambition caused his depression. I can now directly read the quote knowing why you included it and judge whether your claim is accurate. I neither need to jump back and forth nor guess your intentions.

However, the quote from the UNC page above is, to me, quite clear, there is no way to misinterpret it.

Leaving no way for misinterpretation often is a very low bar. eventhissentencepassesit. Good writing (academic and other) contains a lot of things that only serve to make a technically correct and complete text more digestible.


Finally, note that a reason why you don’t find this is style guides may simply be that they do not consider it to fall within their domain. Also, as it is a particular mistake, the authors of the style guide may simply not have thought of including it as it is nothing they encounter frequently. After all, it’s impossible to compile an exhaustive list of things one should not do.

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I suspect the instructors intentions are to reinforce good practices to avoid inadvertent plagiarizing of someone else’s work

From UNL:

Defines plagiarism as “Presenting the work of another as one's own (i.e., without proper acknowledgment of the source) and submitting examinations, theses, reports, speeches, drawings, laboratory notes or other academic work in whole or in part as one's own when such work has been prepared by another person or copied from another person” …. The key to avoiding plagiarism is making a clear distinction between the source’s voice and your own.

The comments you shared seemed to me to be warning off a writing style that disconnects context and — likely — attribution from the floating quotation.

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    I don’t think this applies here. The example of a floating quotation comes with a reference (“Hamlet 2.2”) and nobody would get the idea that the quote is the author’s work. The missing attribution here is rather about who said this within the cited work. We here can guess that it’s Hamlet, but it may be Rosencrantz or somebody else. (I think the example and use of the word attribution is somewhat misleading as it is primarily about quotes within quotes, but the problem applies to regular quotes as well.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 18 at 8:42
  • @Wrzlprmft, the entire floating block is the quotation. The example is quoting someone else’s analysis of Hamlet. That someone else is not given attribution, otherwise there is no reason to use a floating quotation for a single line of dialogue.
    – EDL
    Aug 18 at 11:26
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    I am pretty sure you misunderstood something here. The big quote in the question (starting with “In general”) is from the UNC guidance on quotations, specifically the section on floating quotations. The Hamlet analysis (starting with “Hamlet”) features a floating quotation (starting with “I could”), but is not quoted in a floating quotation itself (floating quotation is not a synonym for block quote). No source is given for the Hamlet analysis itself, probably because it was created as an example only and even if it wasn’t, the UNC guidance doesn’t claim to analyse Hamlet.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 18 at 14:30

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