the quotation sandwich

Mary Jane Curry (University of Rochester) recommended a text to me that people in her doctoral writing courses find helpful. Having now acquired it,  I agree with her recommendation. The book is:

Graff, G and Birkenstein, C (2010) They say, I say: the moves that matter in academic conversation. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

As perhaps can be guessed from the title, the book proposes that ‘the academy’ can really be thought of as  a number of conversations. In other words, in the social sciences we most often enter a conversation that exists rather than invent a new one of our own.  This ‘reality’ brings with it problems about how to deal with the conversation, with what has already been said, while also making it clear what we think and have to contribute.

Graff and Birkenstein address the vexed issues associated with writing academic conversation – working with other people’s texts, quotations, ideas and arguments. They look not only at how academic discourse ‘works’ but also how writing constructs and establishes the writer as a scholar who speaks authoritatively in a particular conversation – or not.

For example, G and B devote quite a bit of time to quotations – using other people’s words  -why use them, when to use them, how they should be used and how to introduce them in the text while also signalling a position.

I particularly like their notion of the hit and run quotation (p. 44). This is when someone just drops a quotation into the text as if it can speak for itself.  The quotation is not introduced at all, the writer does not say why they think it is worth quoting, or whether they agree with it, and they do not connect it with anything they are saying. The quote stands alone in the text while the writer rushes off to something else and the reader is left to make their own reading – or more likely, left confused!!

Graff and Birkenstein offer, as an alternative to the dangling quote, the notion of the quotation sandwich which consists of an introduction, the quotation, and then an explanation. They provide some basic templates for both introductions and explanations. I’ll reproduce a couple of them here so you can see what they are…

Graff and Birkenstein’s templates for introducing quotations – more on p 46.

  • As the prominent philosopher X puts it…
  • According to….
  • X herself writes…
  • Writing in…. X complains that…
  • X agrees/disagrees when she writes…

Templates for explanations – more on p 47.

  • In other words, X believes that…
  • In making this comment, X urges us to..
  • The essence of X’s argument is that..

G and B also offer some helpful exemplars of the sandwich, as well as some good advice on what not to do.

The hit and run quotation is something that occurs not only when writing about and with literatures, but also with field work data. In fact it’s one of the most common writing problems that I see when people are working with data. Quotations are dropped into the text with no supports.

There’s often a rationale that this is people speaking for themselves. This is patently not the case because the researcher has solicited, transcribed and edited the researched speech, and in a particular time, place, space and around a topic they may well have chosen. So enough with the authentic voice argument – it just doesnt wash!! It’s a representation. I digress.  Back to quotes.

Introduction and explanation work differently when it comes to data. Nevertheless, the sandwich idea is a very helpful way to consider what needs doing.

This morning I was writing with data and here is an example (from a first draft of a paper about cross curriculum work in schools) of how the sandwich works with a selection of transcribed speech from an interview.

INTRODUCTION: The Deputy Head offered a problematisation, in order to justify change, which brought together a view about a lack of creativity in approach in the school with a critique of the rigidity of the national curriculum. 

QUOTATION: We were encouraged very much, ten years ago, to become very subject based and when the National Curriculum came out it was very much about putting subjects into individual boxes and a lot of creativity went out of the window then. We are now being pushed back to bringing back topic based work and that fits in very well with what we’ve chosen to do as a school.

EXPLANATION/EXPLICATION: It is important to note the expression of lack of agency in both instances – the introduction of the national curriculum and its ‘antidote’ are similarly externally created. INTRODUCTION TO NEXT QUOTATION: However, this externalisation is modified here and later in the interview to suggest that the ‘pushing’ amounted to external permission and strong encouragement to do something different and to take a direction with which the school agreed.


Here the seriality of introduction and explanation/explication creates a narrative thread which also allows me to signal my own position and to offer an analysis. Ive said explication as well as explanation here because I think with data you can do either but you must do something.

I’m sure you will find lots of examples of how the sandwich works with data as well as with literatures.

But G and B – good stuff. Thanks Mary Jane.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, authority in writing. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to the quotation sandwich

  1. Lesley B says:

    So useful Pat, thank you. I know I need this!!!


  2. Hi Pat. This got me thinking about epigraphs. These can be effective in fiction and non-fiction, and I’m wondering if there’s any place for them in academic texts. In a sense they are ‘hit and run’ quotations at the beginning of chapters / sections – where their significance to the subsequent text can be implicit without being referred to directly. Maybe a place for those ‘knockout’ quotations we come across now and again that seem so profound they don’t need commenting on? I guess I’m thinking about quotations from the literature here, as using quotations from participants / fieldwork might be pushing it a bit.


    • pat thomson says:

      Hi Andy. Epigraphs are a stylistic choice I think but the same problem can arise if the reason they are there is not completely obvious to the reader within a very short space of time. Ive used them once in a book but not since – the reason being that I read them in other people’s work and thought it was hard to avoid being pretentious or plain old mystifying. I just hope mine were the latter!! Ive put it down to early enthusiasm… but of course all rules can be broken for the purpose of impact/style. Its the habituated lack of the sandwich thats problematic.


  3. Pingback: quotations – handle with care | patter

  4. Amanda O'Shea says:

    I have also seen this with some of my students but we tend to refer to it as ‘parachuting in’ a quote. It seems to be a bit like name-dropping.


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