The epigraph versus the block quote
Whether you're writing a research paper for midterms or a novel with inscriptions at the outset of each chapter, this Grammar Guide will set a couple of standard quotation methods to right for you. Epigraphs and block quotes have different placements and citation requirements. To avoid plagiarism, follow these simple rules.
An epigraph is an inscription or quotation used at the beginning of a literary work or chapter to introduce or set the theme/tone of the piece.
A block quote (spelled both as one word or two) is set within the text, and, depending on its length, will have quotation marks to set it off. If it's very long, and parameters can be found in Grammar Guide "Punctuation with quotation in formal text," posted on this blog Feb. 7, 2007, you'll set it off by placing a line of space before and after the quote, indenting it on both the right and left margins, and, depending on the style guide you're following, hitting it with an endnote. (Those rules are spelled out in the Grammar Guide referenced above.)
Epigraphs do not get quotation marks around them. If the epigraph includes dialogue, the dialogue will have its correct punctuation, including quotation marks, but the overall device doesn't get set off by the punctuation. If you're following the American Literature Style Guide, your epigraph will be cited with an em dash and the name of the author and the title of the work from which the quote came. (You can read detailed instructions on the key stroke for the em dash at "Punctuation – the em dash" posted on this blog May 21, 2007.) No other attribution is necessary. No endnote is used, etc. In other words, the rules are a little more lax than with the block quote.
For the placement of the epigraph, again, it depends on the style guide you use. If you're following the AL style guide, you want the epigraph to be flush right at the top of the document, and the font to use is Roman. MLA doesn't list specific rules for epigraphs so students typically apply the MLA rules for block quotes/indented quotes, right down to listing the source on the source page. Etcetera. Just check your style book and write accordingly.
One thing to keep in mind with epigraphs is their perception with readers. If you're writing first-person chick lit with amusing characters in trite sexual encounters, putting deep and meaningful quotes from Dante and Cervantes at the beginning of each chapter equals an attempt at eloquence that the novel is not supposed to have. Stick with something light and fun to match the tone of the overall piece, as the epigraph is, by definition, supposed to do.
Another point to keep in mind is consistency. If using an epigraph on 15 out of 26 chapters in a novel, either strike the 15 or come up with appropriate lead-in quotes for the other 11. Don't do it halfway. Agents, editors and publishers will notice.
"Some days, I just want the dragon to win."
Sandy Lender is a magazine and book editor with 16 years experience in her field. Her first published novel, Choices Meant for Gods, is available from ArcheBooks Publishing.
Tags: Choices Meant for Gods, grammar, grammar guide, epigraph, block quote, dragon