The dos and don’ts of block quotes: A primer
Block quotes look fancy. With their shading, italicizing and indenting, they give a quote attention and improve an article’s visual appeal—I’m not going to pretend otherwise.
But there’s a right way and a wrong way to look fancy. And when it comes to block quotes, there are certain, objective steps we have to take to implement them properly, guidelines to ensure that our usage across the site is as consistent and sensible as possible. They’re pretty easy to learn, so let’s run through the dos and don’ts one by one.
You might want to start by quickly reviewing the guidelines on block quotes in the B/R Stylebook. But that’s not a great place to get into a longer discussion with several scenarios. Hence this blog post. I’ll try to cover as much as I can, and I’ll encourage you to ask any questions you have in the comments.
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1. DON’T use a block quote for a quote you obtained firsthand. You could make an exception if you obtained it in writing or you really want to set off a long, uninterrupted discussion, but the general rule is that block quotes imply that what’s contained within is an excerpt from another source.
2. DO use a block quote for an excerpted quotation of (a) three full lines or more in the editing interface of the publishing platform before implementing the “BQ” formatting or (b) five sentences total—surpassing either minimum is fine. Note that the site’s recent redesign has greatly changed how much text can fit on a line on the live article page when compared to editing mode, but this “three full lines” guideline was written with the editing interface in mind. Plus, it’s easier to stick with a guideline based on how the article looks while you’re writing or editing than how it will look when published! Anything shorter is really not a meaty enough quote to give it that “fancy” treatment.
(Note: The site may fully align the editing interface’s text and column sizes with the live article page at some point in the near future. When in doubt, stick with the “five full sentences” rule.)
3. DON’T use a block quote for any quoted segment that is both less than three full lines of text in the editing interface and fewer than five sentences. This is pretty much what I just said in No. 2, but it’s nice to alternate between dos and don’ts for effect.
4. DO include clear attribution and sourcing, with a hyperlink mandatory (unless you got the quote from a TV/radio broadcast or printed press release), in the lead-in to your block quote. That means you make it clear who is responsible for the ensuing quoted text, where you got it and how the reader can find it in its full context. For a regular quote, you can accomplish all this after the first complete thought of the quote, like this (let’s assume Jason Kidd has already been mentioned):
“We had a lot of long coaches meetings,” Kidd told NBA.com’s John Schuhmann. “We had a lot of long conversations with players. But there was never a panic of, like, ‘Maybe I should have kept playing, maybe we should have went on vacation a little bit longer.’”
Let’s say we were to take an extended version of that quote from that NBA.com story and make it a block quote due to its length. We’d have to introduce all the elements in our lead-in transition and make the block quote a pure quote from Kidd.
Kidd recently talked about the Nets’ early struggles with NBA.com’s John Schuhmann:
We had a lot of long coaches meetings. We had a lot of long conversations with players. But there was never a panic of, like, ‘Maybe I should have kept playing, maybe we should have went on vacation a little bit longer.’ Sometimes you have to face adversity right off the bat and you get to find out who’s really in and who’s out. And those guys in the locker room are truly in and that’s what makes it special.
After the block quote, the story would continue here.
5. DON’T use quotation marks to open and close a block quote. The block quote format takes the place of that open and close quote. In the example above, quotation marks aren’t necessary to understand it’s Kidd speaking. The indentation and shading (in Bleacher Report, though there’s no shading on this blog) make any further distinction unnecessary. This one is an interesting case, though, because it has Kidd quoting his own thoughts. Because this was originally done with single quotes in the source material (it’s a journalism convention to do so for a quote within a quote) and might be confusing with double quotes, it should remain as single quotes.
6. DO leave quotation marks around a quote within a larger block quote featuring other text—i.e. *if* there is also text produced by the writer of the source article being excerpted. In that NBA.com article, which is a good read, Schuhmann actually accomplishes this himself with a block quote from a Bleacher Report article by Howard Beck, so we’ll use his piece as a great example. So it’s clear what’s from Schuhmann’s article, I’ll set it off with text breaks:
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A veteran scout, interviewed earlier in the day and speaking on the condition of anonymity, called Kidd’s bench comportment “terrible,” observing that the play-calling has fallen mostly to his top assistants, Lawrence Frank and John Welch.
“He doesn’t do anything,” said the scout, who has watched the Nets several times. “He doesn’t make calls. John Welch does all the offense. Lawrence does all the defense. … I don’t know what Kidd does. I don’t think you can grade him and say he’s bad. You can give him an incomplete.”
Things have changed quite a bit. The Nets are 27-12 (best in the Eastern Conference) sine the new year began, with a top-10 defense, despite a two-game slide this week.
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(Note: I changed the hyperlinking in his example a bit to better mirror B/R guidelines, which advise quoting on “clearly attributive words” or “a relevant verb or verb with a small number of related words.” Since that’s tangentially related, it seemed like a good idea to clear that up here.)
As you can see, it makes sense to surround the quote within the larger excerpt in regular quotation marks so it mirrors the source article. The quotation marks are necessary for proper reading, and the attribution should be left intact here because it’s part of a full excerpt.
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That should cover most of the scenarios with quoting when you might be debating whether to use a block quote or how to format the text properly. Again, we don’t want to use block quotes with firsthand quotes because it could look like we copied the quotes from elsewhere. In general, block quotes are reserved for excerpted text, but a writer may choose to block-quote a long firsthand quote, especially if it was obtained in writing (e.g. via email).
There are many quoting situations that can crop up in journalistic writing, so please don’t hesitate to ask about anything else in the world of block quotes in the comments below.
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Tim Coughlin manages Bleacher Report’s copy editing team and helps to oversee the B/R Stylebook. Other style questions and suggestions may be directed to the Stylebook Question Form at the bottom of the B/R Stylebook page.