4. Using Sources

When you write an essay it is important to remember that, unless the reader is told otherwise, he or she will assume that the language used and the ideas expressed are your own. However, a good essay sometimes needs to borrow language and ideas from other sources, so it is important that you know how to make it clear to the reader when you are doing so.

Primary and secondary sources

We often divide the sources we use in essays or projects into primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are those texts that can be seen as the basic documents associated with an issue or a subject. For example, if you are writing about the American Constitution and its impact on political life in America, then the actual text of the American Constitution, as formulated by the Founding Fathers, will be an invaluable primary source. Similarly, if you are writing about America’s foreign policy and how it has changed over the years, the speeches of presidents in which this policy is set out will be useful primary sources. To return to our courtroom analysis, primary sources will be important “evidence” in convincing the jury of your interpretation of “events”.
Secondary sources are those texts which essentially are doing what you are doing in your essay – i.e. discussing, analyzing and commenting on an issue or a subject. In his book The Audacity of Hope (see extract p. 418) Barack Obama writes about both the American Constitution and American foreign policy (as well as a whole host of other issues). If you refer to or quote from his book, you are using a secondary source. When you are working on an essay – especially the in-depth extended essay that you have to write this year – you will find it useful to read what other people have written about your topic. Encyclopaedias, books from the library, essays and articles on the internet – all these are examples of secondary sources that you may find useful. The more you read about your topic, the better informed your response will be.


One of the ways we can use both primary and secondary sources is by quoting from them. The first rule here is that it should be made quite clear where a quotation starts and where it finishes. This is done using inverted commas (also called quotation marks). If the quotation starts with a complete sentence, the previous sentence should end in a colon:
President Truman’s speech makes it clear that he supports the right of the US to intervene in other countries where necessary: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
If the quotation starts in mid-sentence, no colon is required:
President Truman’s speech makes it clear that he supports the right of the US to intervene in other countries where necessary “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
Using quotations is an essential tool in an essay – but don’t overdo it! A short, highly relevant quotation is better than a long, slightly relevant one. Avoid quoting long paragraphs and, above all, don’t let the quotations become a substitute for your own explanations and reasoning. This would be like the attorney simply showing the murder weapon and other items of evidence and then pronouncing “I rest my case!” A quotation is worthless unless you explain exactly what you think it shows.
Quoting from primary sources is fairly straightforward. Provided you use the correct punctuation, it is usually clear where the borrowed language is taken from. When you borrow from secondary sources, however, it is important that you acknowledge where you have borrowed from. You do this by using quotation marks and stating whom you are quoting:
I believe American foreign policy makers would be wise to focus less on their own short-term strategic advantages and more on internationally approved laws. As Barack Obama puts it, “nobody benefits more than we do from the observance of international ‘rules of the road’. We can’t win converts to those rules if we act as if they apply to everyone but us.”


If you do not acknowledge borrowing, it is no longer borrowing – it is stealing! Plagiarism is the term used for language and ideas that are stolen and passed off as one’s own, and it is an increasing problem in schools and universities. Sometimes plagiarism involves people handing in whole essays, theses and research papers that have been written by someone else, but it is important to remember that poor use of sources can also lead to plagiarism. Imagine, for example, that we removed the acknowledgement from the previous extract:
I believe American foreign policy makers would be wise to focus less on their own short-term strategic advantages and more on internationally approved laws. After all, nobody benefits more than Americans do from the observance of international “rules of the road”. They can’t win converts to those rules if they act as if they apply to everyone but them.
This is plagiarism. It is not enough that the writer has made a few minor changes to the sentences. The language here is Barack Obama’s, not the essay writer’s.
Students sometimes imagine that stealing language in this way is a short cut to improving their writing style. Actually it makes for a rather uneven text, since the stolen language usually “sticks out like a sore thumb” compared to the rest. Acknowledging secondary sources in the correct way, on the other hand, can give your essay a very professional feel and is more likely to impress your reader (your teacher!). It shows that you have read around your topic and that you know the way to use what you have read.
Do ideas have to be acknowledged in an essay? This depends on the sort of idea we are talking about. If the idea is common knowledge or widely held, we do not need to. So the statement “George Washington is the father of the American nation” does not require acknowledgement – we probably would not be able to find the originator of the phrase anyway. However if the ideas we find have a particular source, they need to be acknowledged.
In longer pieces of writing, like extended essays or written projects, it is usual to list the sources you have used, both primary and secondary sources. This means giving the title, author, publisher and publishing date of books and articles you have read. Also internet sources must be given in detail, i.e. the title of the site, the electronic address, the name of the institution or organisation connected with it, the name of the person who created or maintains (where this is known) and the date on which it was accessed.

Paraphrasing and summarising

Quotation is not the only way of using the “evidence” of primary and secondary sources in an essay. Paraphrasing means expressing someone else’s ideas in one’s own words, and it is a useful tool for avoiding long quotations. A paraphrase should carefully avoid the language of the original, and therefore quotation marks should not be used. However, paraphrasing should not be seen as a way of sidestepping plagiarism. Acknowledgement of the source is still necessary, unless it is a primary source that is obvious to the reader.
Paraphrasing can be tricky – there is always the temptation to use the phrasing of the original text. A good way to go avoid this is to read the original text carefully, but not have it in front of you when you are writing your paraphrase. Afterwards you can check that your version accurately expresses the ideas in the original without using its phrasing. If there are phrases that you simply cannot do without, remember that is quite permissible to blend paraphrase and quotation, provided you make it clear which is which, by using quotation marks.
A summary is a form of paraphrase, only here the aim is focus on the main idea of the original text. A summary is therefore shorter than the original.
The following examples demonstrate the difference between a paraphrase, a summary and a plagiarism:
The original text:
What we’re asking here is actually a deeper question: how much does the individual matter in history? Answer: a lot. If the winner of the 2000 presidential election had been Al Gore the story of transatlantic relations over the past few years could have been very different. The 9/11 attacks might have provoked a transatlantic crisis anyway, because America might have felt itself to be at war while Europe didn’t. But so much of the subsequent bust-up had to do with Bush himself: his unilateralism, his obsession with Iraq, his cowboy style, his incompetence. (From “More of the McSame?” by Timothy Garton Ash, The Guardian Weekly June 13-19 2008)
A paraphrase:
Timothy Garton Ash (“More of the McSame”, the Guardian Weekly June 13-19 2008) believes that the personality of each president has a real impact on history. Had Al Gore won the 2000 election instead of Bush, the relationship between Europe and the United States might have developed quite differently. While the 9/11 attacks might have led to a crisis in relations anyway, since it was the US that was attacked and not Europe, many of the tensions that have developed since are a result of Bush’s particular brand of leadership.
A summary:
In “More of the McSame” (the Guardian Weekly June 13-19 2008) Timothy Garton Ash argues that many of the tensions that have developed between the US and Europe since the 9/11 attacks are a result of Bush’s personal style and leadership.
A plagiarism:
We can ask ourselves a deeper question here: How much does the individual matter in history? In my view, the answer is: a lot. For example, if the presidential election in 2000 had been won by Al Gore, I believe the story of transatlantic relations in recent years would have been very different. There might have been a transatlantic crisis anyway, because America might have felt in was involved in a war while Europe didn’t. But I think that Bush himself – his unilateralism, his obsession with Iraq, his cowboy style, his incompetence – is the chief reason for the break-down in relations.



1. Look at the examples above and point out the differences in how the last three versions approach the original text.
2. Correct the punctuation in the following extracts from an essay so that the quotations are incorporated correctly into the text. The text that the essay refers to and quotes from is the extract from The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, on pp. 418-420 in Access to English: Social Studies:
  1. Obama jokes that with his family’s multiethnic background family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting. (See second paragraph, p. 418)
  2. Although Obama argues that America is one nation, he warns against thinking that the fight for equality has been won. On the contrary, the figures show that blacks are overrepresented in poverty statistics and underrepresented in both business and government. To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in these disparities is to turn a blind eye to both our history and our experience. (See first paragraph p. 420)
  3. In order to think clearly about race, Obama argues, we must see the world on a split screen. This means on one hand being honest and realistic about the sins of the past, while on the other looking ahead to the society we want for the future. When black leaders are cynical about the changes that have been achieved, it not only dishonors those who struggled on our behalf but also robs us of our agency to complete the work they began. (See last paragraph)
3. Paraphrase the following paragraphs:
It would be difficult to find a better representative of the Age of Enlightenment than Benjamin Franklin. He was a writer, a newspaper editor, a printer and a political activist. He was a scientist who did ground-breaking work into the nature of electricity. He was the inventor of such innovations as bifocal lenses for glasses, flippers for swimming, a stove that circulated air and a musical instrument. He was a philosopher and a diplomat, a musician and a composer. And so far we have not mentioned what he is most famous for – he was one of the Founding Fathers, the group of men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, drafted the American Constitution and created the United States of America.
 (Source: Access to English: Literature, Cappelen, 2008)
Nixon cast himself as a defender of the presidency. He insisted that he had made mistakes but broke no laws. He said he had no prior knowledge of the burglary and did not know about the cover-up until early 1973. To release the tapes, he said, would harm future chief executives. The pressure on Nixon mounted in March 1974, when the special prosecutor indicted former Attorney General John Mitchell, former aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and four other staffers for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury in connection with the Watergate burglary. While the grand jury wanted to indict Nixon himself, Jaworski declined to do so doubting the constitutionality of indicting a sitting president.
Source: The Washington Post: The Watergate Story
4. Summarise the following paragraph:
To understand American politics you must understand that Americans have distrusted any concentration of political power ever since the nation was founded. The American form of government was written down in a Constitution, adopted in 1787, shortly after the thirteen colonies gained independence from Great Britain. Having just fought a war against what they viewed as the tyranny of King George III, the Americans were understandably eager to make sure no one person or persons be allowed to have too much power. Wherever power was concentrated, they broke it up.
Source: Access to English: Social Studies
Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 18.06.2008

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