Using Evidence


Many historical essays rely heavily on textual evidence (quotations from written sources) to support their arguments.  Historians draw textual evidence from many kinds of sources, such as letters, novels, political treatises, and advertisements.  Textual evidence is sometimes presented by paraphrasing (summarizing in one’s own words), if the particular language used seems insignificant, but historians often find it more effective to quote key phrases and brief passages.  As you practice using quotations to provide evidence for your own historical interpretations, consider the following principles as guidelines.

Introduce All Quotations

When you quote, keep your purpose in mind.  Generally, you are using the quotation to support a particular point of an argument, usually reflected in a paragraph’s topic sentence and connected to a larger thesis.  In order to function as evidence, then, a quotation needs to be properly introduced.  If you are quoting a historian or scholar—an authority on the subject at hand—you should say so.  (In most cases, it is not necessary to provide an institutional affiliation for a scholar; it is enough to note that the person is an expert scholar of the topic at hand.)   For example:

As colonial historian Jack Greene has argued, . . .

According to Kathryn Kish Sklar, a scholar of American women’s history, . . .

Likewise, when you quote a primary source, you need to provide relevant context, so that your readers can understand the quotation’s significance.  For example:

In her 1861 memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs described the horrors of slavery as experienced by a young woman: “[T]here is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men.”[1]

In sum, you need to be sure that you adequately describe the source of your quotations.  Without such information, your readers will be unable to determine the relevance of the quotation or the validity of the evidence.  Rather than serving as convincing evidence or an illuminating illustration, a quotation without context will simply frustrate or confuse your readers.

Integrate All Quotations into Your Own Sentences

Avoid the temptation to “drop” unconnected quotations into your essays.  Generally, short quotations can be worked directly into your own sentence.  For example:

In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson declared slavery to be a “cruel war against human nature itself.”[2]

If you are quoting an independent clause or multiple sentences, however, the rules of syntax (sentence structure) require that you use a colon to set off the quotation.  Additionally, when you incorporate a quotation into your own sentence structure, you need to make sure that you create a grammatically correct sentence.  (See more examples of how to integrate quotations.)

Choose Quotations Carefully

Don’t quote regarding simple facts.  Don’t quote just to quote.  Quote to support or illustrate your point, and be sure to quote accurately.  If you decide to paraphrase rather than to quote, be sure to completely rephrase the passage—you need to do more than merely rearrange a few words or plug synonyms into a copied sentence structure.  Whether you paraphrase or quote or a source, you need to provide a citation.

Analyze or Comment on Quotations

If a passage is worth quoting, it is also worth explaining how the passage supports the point that you want to make—especially in the case of primary source evidence.  For complex quotations, you may well need to start by restating the passage in your own words.  Here you can use key phrases such as: “In other words, . . .”; or “What Fuller was saying was that . . .”; or “Emerson meant that . . .”; or “The law implied that . . .”  Even for relatively self-explanatory quotations, you need to comment on the connection between the quotation and the point that you are trying to make. In sum, always follow quotations with some sort of analysis or explanation of significance.  Quotations do not speak for themselves—at least not fully.  It is your job to connect them to your main points.

Use Ellipses and Brackets Correctly

Enclose any insertions that you make in a quotation in brackets.  If there is a typographical error in the quotation, you should reproduce the error, but follow it with [sic], which will indicate to your readers that the error is in the original.  (You don’t need to do this if you are quoting a pre-modern writer who used a good deal of non-standard spellings.)  If there is an unclear pronoun (he, she, they, etc.) or other referent in the quotation, you can insert a clarifying explanation in brackets.  Furthermore, part of quoting accurately means using ellipses ( . . . ) to show when you have left out words.  If you skip end punctuation mark, such as a period, and effectively combine two sentences you should use four ellipses.  If you merely skip a phrase within a sentence, just use three ellipses.  When you use ellipses to shorten a quotation, make certain that you are not changing its meaning!

Cite Specific Page Numbers

When you quote or paraphrase from a book, article, or primary source, you need to indicate the specific page number from which you quoted, paraphrased, or drew your information.  It is not enough simply to cite the entire text. See Avoiding Plagiarism for more details.


[1] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 22.

[2] The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, ed. Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 34.

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Writing Handbook for History & Humanities by David J. Voelker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.