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Making Use of Others’ Terms, Phrases, or Passages

Extract | Transplant | Recontextualize

Since many academic writers make use of the work of others as they construct their own arguments, it’s important to think carefully about how best to incorporate others’ terms, phrases, and passages into our texts. To conceptualize what’s required, consider what’s needed when gardeners transplant plant material from one location in the garden to another. One must deftly dig out the plant so as to disturb its root system as little as possible. As one moves the plant to its new location, it’s also advisable to keep its root ball in tact.  Then, one gently places the plant into its new setting, taking care to nourish it into its new home. 

Transplanting quoted material shares in the same sensibilities since writers excise the term, phrase, or passage they are interested in, and then carefully transport it from its original context to its new site within the setting of the writer’s own work. Inevitably, this involves a contextual shift that requires writers to “prepare the soil” of their own writing to receive the transplant, and then nourish it into its new life as evidence in an analysis or as an illustration of an argumentative point. One way to do this is to think of the evidentiary term, phrase, or passage as an exhibit in an argument, knowing that it is the writer’s responsibility to exhibit the term, phrase, or passage—framing it appropriately, placing it just so, contextualizing its new purpose and role.


Exhibiting Evidence: Case 1

Though writers usually have something in mind when they select others’ textual material or data to circulate into their arguments, readers (even those open to persuasion) don’t always understand the exact relevance of a passage, or are unable to discern how that material or data illustrates or exemplifies a point without the writer’s help. Writers can address this insufficiency by guiding their readers to treat passages as evidence or to mark out their relevance as examples by exhibiting  such evidence and examples, much in the same way that a trial attorney would offer forensic exhibits to a jury. Imagine, for instance, a prosecutor trying a case where an aggrieved wife has been accused of murdering her husband with a revolver. At a crucial moment in the trial, the prosecutor shows the jury the pistol found at the crime scene. She gingerly picks up the gun by placing the tip of her pen through its handle. Dangling it in front of her, she carries it back and forth just in front of the jury box while narrating details about the horrible scene. Here, she embeds the displayed pistol in a narrative crafted to highlight the use of the gun by the murderous wife. The pistol cannot “speak for itself;” instead the prosecutor must animate it to become a dramatic element in a story, a central piece of evidence in her argument. To exhibit a term, phrase, or passage from another’s discourse, or to exhibit others’ data in the context of your own analysis or argument, consider three steps:

  1. Carefully extract the textual material or data from its original context.
  2. Judiciously transplant that material into its new home of your analysis or argument.
  3. Recontextualize that material or data to serve your purpose.


1. Extract the material.

Let’s say that a writer is interested in commenting upon Frederick Douglass’s autobiographical discourse, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave. Douglass was a nineteenth-century public intellectual writer and abolitionist who speaks passionately about the importance of reading and writing in his early life, accomplishments made even more important because of the prohibitions against enslaved African Americans learning to read and write imposed by European Americans. The writer wants readers to consider the social and political effects of those literacy prohibitions. In her research, the writer discovered Alberto Manguel, a scholar whose work,  A History of Reading, offers an interesting perspective on the powers of literacy. The writer decides that she would like to make use of Manguel’s point to shed light on the importance of slave literacy as described in Douglass’s autobiography. She decides that this is the passage she’d like to extract:

Original Passage

Someone able to read one sentence is able to read all; more important, that reader now has the possibility of reflecting upon the sentence, of acting upon it, of giving it a meaning.  The ability to read one text opens the possibility to read any number of other texts, to launch a personal history of reading (Manguel 281).

Trimmed Passage

The writer decides that she willl trim the passage in order to extract only those parts most relevant to her rhetorical needs.  She decides to extract only the sentence in bold:

Someone able to read one sentence is able to read all; more important, that reader now has the possibility of reflecting upon the sentence, of acting upon it, or giving it a meaning. The ability to read one text opens the possibility to read any number of other texts, to launch a personal history of reading (Manguel 281).


2. Judiciously transplant the material.

The writer decides that Manguel’s passage should be placed in her paper to help her to articulate the ramifications of prohibiting U.S. slaves to learn to read and write.  She decides that the passage belongs here (the writer’s work is in red; Manguel’s writing is in green):

Slave owners in the American South forbade literacy for African-Americans, fearing that such a skill would foster discontent or even rebellion. “Someone able to read one sentence is able to read all; more important, that reader has now the possibility of reflecting upon the sentence, of acting upon it, of giving it a meaning” (Manguel 281). Violation of literacy prohibitions were met with severe punishment: whippings, beatings, and even death.  

There is nothing mechanically or citationally incorrect about this construction. But as it stands, readers will have difficulty seeing the relevance of Manguel’s passage to this writer’s argument.  So, she moves to the next step: recontexualizing, which turns Manguel’s passage into exhibited evidence:


3.  Recontextualize the material to serve your own purpose.

This is perhaps the most crucial part of making use of others’ data, ideas, and words.  This is where our writer articulates a new use for another’s work to serve her own purposes. (The recontextualization is in blue):

Slave owners in the American South forbade literacy for African-Americans, fearing that such a skill would foster discontent or even rebellion. Prohibitions against literacy in the slave-holding South are often explained not simply as slave owners depriving African-Americans of a precious commodity, but rather as a future-oriented fear.  Though Alberto Manguel, a historian of reading practices, examines his own literacy education, his insight applies to other readers as well. He helps to account for slave owners’ fears of their slaves’ literacy by touching on an elemental principle of learning to read: “Someone able to read one sentence is able to read all; more important, that reader has now the possibility of reflecting upon the sentence, of acting upon it, of giving it a meaning” (281). Notice that Manguel assumes that a single sentence is the proto-sentence for all future reading: an initial mastery liberates readers into a life with text.  What’s interesting—and somewhat problematic—is that such a view of reading tends to facilitate the very logic of prohibition, reading understood as a kind of insatiable addiction. 

The blue text asserts the relevance of Manguel’s passage to the matter at hand, acknowledging the writer’s wider application of the idea than Manguel originally proposed. Here, the writer works to make Manguel’s passage “her own.” It’s now successfully transplanted in a new setting, where it can flourish. 


Exhibiting Evidence: Case 2

Imagine that another writer is interested in analyzing a passage from  Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, an exposé of the squalid living conditions of tenement-dwellers living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1888.  Riis argued for improved housing for the urban poor, and here describes what he takes to be the fate of men and women who frequent what he calls “stale beer dives,” establishments where flat beer could be purchased for a penny.  As you will see, the writer is troubled by the way in which Riis over-confidently asserts the fate of these people.  Notice how he prepares readers (in the blue text) to interpret Riis’s passage (in green) in a particular way:

Riis envisions the “stale beer dive” as the first step on a pathway to doom. For him, those who frequent such establishments set themselves on a one-way road to destruction, not necessarily because they become alcoholics (though many do) but rather because the “stale beer dive” exerts its irresistible pressure on them.  Notice how Riis uses the metaphor of a lodestone (a magnetized stone once used as a primitive compass to guide travelers on their journeys) to represent the directional pull of the beer dive on its customers: “Like a foul loadstone [sic], ‘the Bend’ attracts and bring them back, no matter how far they have wandered. For next to idleness the tramp loves rum; next to rum stale beer, its equivalent of the gutter” (113).  So powerful is Riis’s deterministic ideology that it acts as his own cognitive lodestone, exerting an irresistible pull on his thinking, leading him to inevitable conclusions about human behavior. Riis could not escape the driving force of his foundational assumptions about the limits of free will among the urban poor.  

The writer has recontextualized Riis’s passage so that it becomes evidence exhibited to serve his own analytic agenda. With the help of the text in blue, readers can better understand how the passage illustrates the writer’s point.  Riis’ original passage has been, in effect, thematically adjusted to serve a new purpose—turning Riis’s comments about the pull of the beer dive on its customers’ lives back onto Riis’s thinking, an ironic new use of the lodestone metaphor. 


Exhibiting Evidence: Case 3

Consider a last case where a writer decides to extract a lengthy passage for consideration. If you incorporate a passage of more than four typed lines into your text, rather than placing it in quotation marks, you present it as a blocked quote, indented one tab to the right.  This blocking signals that fact that you’re directly quoting the passage. Blocked quotes are tricky to circulate into your prose since readers are tempted to skip over them, assuming that they are superfluous, when in fact you quote at some length for a good reason, and want readers to pay attention to what another writer has said. To combat this tendency, you can draw attention to specific terms or phrases within the blocked quote by placing them in italics, and then going on to say something about these highlighted terms or phrases in your analysis. When you make such a change to the original text, you include the words “emphasis added” or “italics mine” in brackets at the end of the quoted passage to signal that you have modified the original.

Note how the writer prepares readers to encounter the blocked quote, how he highlights certain terms for special attention, and then refers to these in her follow-up.  She is critiquing an argumentative strategy used by John McWhorter, in his book Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America:

Though McWhorter offers several claims about the relative degree of contemporary racism in the United States, at one point he ventures comparisons intended to quell concerns about our present social ills. the first comparison speaks to the challenges of class conflict; the second diminishes the harms of current racism altogether:

Discrimination is increasingly rare and subtle, shading ever more from racism into classism, which. . .is rampant in all human societies, and wounds people of all colors. In general American consciousness, bigotry has not disappeared completely. . . .No, things are not perfect—but let’s face it: there are millions and millions of people on earth who would kill for the lives of but a few black Americans today, and there have been untold billions of people who have triumphed amdist conditions unspeakably worse. [emphasis added] (316).  

The fact that classism continues to plague “all human societies,” or that some other difficulty (McWhorter doesn’t define the “unspeakably worse” condition he has in mind) has been successfully overcome by “untold billions” says nothing about the specific challenges of either social problem. They are simply declared to be in some way manageable, and therefore apt comparisons for addressing American racism. By the logic of such weak relativism, any example of communal triumph—solicited from any time in history and from anywhere across the globe—throws the present case into shadow.