Paraphrasing is a skill and it is one used so frequently by students that often teachers will just assume that every student knows how to do it. This is a common mistake made by educators for an understandable reason: we all paraphrase several times a day in our daily speech. We paraphrase snippets from conversations, from morning shows, gossip blogs, from parents and friends. This is largely because we are a communicative society. We often have to convey something that was mentioned earlier by one party to another party and few of us tape record conversations so that we can play them back word for word. Hence, paraphrasing becomes essential in order to convey the gist or overall tone of the information. Given how frequently so many members of society use paraphrasing, it can be too easy to assume that everyone knows how to do it correctly. In a scholastic setting, students really need formal instruction on how to paraphrase correctly so that they don’t commit instances of plagiarism. Furthermore, paraphrasing gives the student the freedom of citing ideas he/she didn’t create without being chained and shackled to a word for word quotation. Mastering the ability to paraphrase with ease gives you the opportunity to give variety to your writing and to show your mastery of the material.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to paraphrase “…means taking the words of another source and restating them, using your own vocabulary. In this way, you keep the meaning of the original text, but do not copy its exact wording.” Essentially the paraphrase is designed to swap out the key words so that you are not parroting the original author and instead capture the gist of what is said.
This task sounds simple, but many students struggle with it because they either misinterpret what the gist of the text actually is or they otherwise warp it via the task of paraphrasing. Linguistic scholars argue at length about the difference between full paraphrases and quasi-paraphrases, as so many changes can be slipped in simply with a few new words. This can create subtle but impactful differences in meaning, viewpoint and implication (Bhagat & Hovoy, 2013). Another more simpler view of a paraphrase is defined as “…sentences or phrases that convey approximately the same meaning using different words” (Bhagat & Hovoy, 2013).
The main distinction between paraphrasing something and simply plagiarizing it, is founded in the fact that a proper paraphrase will have source cited and attached. Properly citing one’s source means that one is not attempting to pass off someone else’s work as their own. The work of other scholars and experts in a given field revolves around more than just direct quotes but also their ideas. In the field of academia, ideas are very valuable. To attempt to pass off another person’s ideas as your own is akin to stealing and is a very serious offense. This is particularly true since certain phrases or key words have taken academics long hours of study and brainstorming to come up with. They’ve put in the work so they deserve to have their ideas (and the hard work behind their ideas) properly attributed it. For example, if you make reference to an Oedipal complex, you really should cite Sigmund Freud, since he was the grandfather of psychoanalysis and the great mind who came up with this idea in the first place. Even if you paraphrase “Oedipal complex” to a “predilection of the Oedipal variety” and have almost completely swapped out all the old words for new words, you still need to properly cite Freud. This paraphrase still remains as a direct reference to his work.
Thus, when you paraphrase, you not only change the key words, you also change the structure of the sentence or excerpt. This helps to give the repurposed text new life.
Some experts argue that if a paraphrase uses seven or more words taken from the original source without proper acknowledgement, then plagiarism has been committed.
The meaning and intent of the original statement need to be preserved as much as possible. However, the vocabulary or more specifically, the words chosen, need to be different. Think of it as following a recipe for stew and you need to swap out every ingredient listed for something else, but still attempt to get stew. Instead of beef, you’ll use pork. Instead of tomatoes, you’ll use pureed pumpkin. Instead of garlic, you’ll use onion. With all these reasonable swaps at the end, you should still have a hearty stew—but one which is still distinct. Finally, you should still give reference to the original author.
Summarizing is when you are able to condense the main ideas of an other author or thinker into their core concepts or ideas. Since you are summarizing the work of another person, you should always give the original author proper credit. The difference between a paraphrased paragraph and a summarized paragraph is nuanced. Usually a paraphrased paragraph will seek to just give the essential gist of whatever they are referring to. A summarized paragraph seeks to give a recap of main points and main ideas of the original source. Both should have proper citation and refer back to their original source.
To make things even more complicated, it is possible to create properly paraphrased summaries and it is also possible to create plagiarized summaries. An appropriately paraphrased summary would be one that restates an already written summary, using new structure and vocabulary. This paraphrased summary would of course require proper in-text citation.
A plagiarized summary would be one that essentially restates the same ideas from the original summary, relying on many of the same key words. This plagiarism would occur without reference to the original author.
Paraphrasing an idea, point, concept, argument or rebuttal within an academic context takes some practice. However, since most students already have so much experience paraphrasing in everyday contexts, you’ll get the hang of it in no time at all.
Before you even think about finding new words or tweaking the tone, you need to change how the sentence or paragraph has been architected. Start your new sentence at a place that is distinct from the original sentence. This is a wise choice as it will force you to make changes in wording.
For example, if your original excerpt is: “While Jay Gatsby is a tragic hero, he is also an inspirational character. Even though he does not fully succeed in repeating the past, he comes close and is almost completely successful in reinventing himself.”
The best place to start your paraphrase would be by putting the second sentence first:
“Gatsby comes close in repeating the past mostly through his success in reinventing himself, but he does not fully succeed. This makes Jay Gatsby both a tragic hero and an inspirational character.”
With this restructuring, you are now in a position to start swapping out words to really make this paraphrase your own. Changing the structure is so powerful as it can have an impact on tone as well. It is akin to altering the fingerprints of the original idea and creates a very valuable freshness. Sometimes the paraphrase gives you an opportunity to make the academic’s ideas more readable and accessible, particularly if you choose more direct methods of sentence structure.
When you choose to architect the sentences in a fresher manner, you have the freedom to change the sentence length. You can cut up longer sentences, or blend shorter ones. You can offer an expansion of certain ideas in order to provide more lucidity. Sometimes academics are able to write with great authority, but they require the reader to read and reread a sentence over and over again, for lucidity. With a paraphrase, you can change all that by improving the writing, and making it more concise.
Consider the following scholarly critique by Richard Beardsworth of the philosopher Derrida:
“Derrida is careful to avoid this term [method] because it carries connotations of a procedural form of judgment. A thinker with a method has already decided how to proceed, is unable to give him or herself up to the matter of thought in hand, is a functionary of the criteria which structure his or her conceptual gestures. For Derrida […] this is irresponsibility itself. Thus, to talk of a method in relation to deconstruction, especially regarding its ethico-political implications, would appear to go directly against the current of Derrida’s philosophical adventure” (Beardsworth, 1998).
In this case, you have the opportunity to make more nebulous academic thought more accessible through the act of paraphrasing. Using this first step, you can make this excerpt more lucid by changing the structure.
“Derrida viewed the use of a method as irresponsible. This is because methods often connect to strict forms of reasoning. Philosophers with routine methods have already made the decision about the best approach to going forward and this can limit them as they can surrender to the present idea being examined. Hence, discussing a method’s connection to deconstruction and its ethical and political significance are against the grain of the Derrida’ thought process.”
This method of paraphrasing captures the bulk of what the critic is attempting to convey, yet does so in a manner that is clearer and more direct. When it comes to changing the structure, feel free to make bolder moves with it. You can change the voice from active to passive and vice versa.
This is one of the most crucial steps of creating an adequate paraphrase. Using new vocabulary showcases that you understand the crux of what is being said, but can still select synonyms that convey the same meaning. You can remove very esoteric words with ones that are more accessible. Conversely, you can remove words that are too generic with ones that express the core idea more exactly.
Keep in mind that with this technique you can still use certain set phrases, if you want to. In some cases, keeping an author’s original turn of phrase is useful, because you might want to refer to it later.
Consider the following excerpt:
“Objects in space and time are said to be ‘appearances’, and he argues that we know nothing of substance about the things in themselves of which they are appearances. Kant calls this doctrine (or set of doctrines) ‘transcendental idealism’” (Stang, 2016).
This excerpt can easily be paraphrased to:
“Transcendental idealism” is one of the main principles or group of principles of Kant’s belief system. From his perspective, things that occur in the physical world are just “appearances” and this gives the average individual very little knowledge about these things at their core (Stang, 2016).
In this example, the words and structure have been changed to create a more functional paraphrase. However, certain words and phrases are still kept because they are significant and they are useful to refer back to. “Appearances” and “transcendental idealism” refer to some of the core concepts of Kant and keeping them in one’s writing makes the overall composition stronger.
One of the major benefits of paraphrasing is the ability to improve upon the original work. You can provide illumination in areas where the original author did not provide any.
Consider the following example by this author on genetic theory:
“For example, morphological evolution sometimes involves a modest number of genetic changes, with some individual changes having a large effect on the phenotype or fitness” (Orr, 2005).
“Genetic transformations can have an impact on morphological evolution, or the way an animal’s shape, structure or size can change over time. Certain specific modifications can have an enormous impact on the overall physicality of the creature or its observable characteristics.”
Consider the following statement: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens demonstrates how loyalty and an ethical conscience are more important than advancement of the individual within society.
A paraphrase of this remark that slightly changes the meaning and is thus problematic, would be: “Charles Dickens’ penultimate novel Great Expectations shows the reader how integrity and a moral compass supersede self-improvement.”
In this case, the term “self-improvement” is not an accurate synonym for the social advancement the original sentence refers to. Dickens does not condemn self-improvement in his novel. He condemns the material and class distinctions that people can cling to in the name of self-improvement.
“This article uses Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath as a platform to tease out three important aspects of the metaphor of rape, by examining the green apocalypse present in Steinbeck‘s book, by pointing out Steinbeck’s identification of the exploitation of nature as a rape, and by thinking about the ways in which women are portrayed as earth mothers” (Gudmarsdottir, 2010).
Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath revolves around three factors imbedded within the theme of rape: the environmental destruction, the manipulation of the environment, and the usage of the female as presumed earth-mother (Gudmarsdottir, 2010).
“When an object falls into a black hole, any information about the shape of the object or distribution of charge on it is evenly distributed along the horizon of the black hole, and is lost to outside observers. The behavior of the horizon in this situation is a dissipative system that is closely analogous to that of a conductive stretchy membrane with friction and electrical resistance—the membrane paradigm” (Thorne & Price, 1986).
The event horizon of a black hole works as a thermodynamically open system that is similar to a pliable membrane that offers both friction and electrical opposition (Thorne & Price, 1986). This means that if an object passes this horizon, thus entering the black hole, all data about the thing or the circulation of energy is spread out along the horizon and thus unobservable (Thorne & Price, 1986).
“Although slavery has long been a part of human history, American chattel slavery represents a case of human trauma incomparable in scope, duration and consequence to any other incidence of human enslavement” (DeGruy, 2005).
American chattel slavery was an aberration from many of the different types of slavery that had long existed in human civilization largely because of the intensity, length of time, and the after effects that this type of slavery waged on the human race (DeGruy, 2005).
In APA format, you need to use the author’s name and the date within a parenthetical.
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Tolstoy, 2012).
Families where happiness rules are generally identical, but families where discontent is central have an individuality all their own (Tolstoy, 2016).
Or if you are citing the author within the paraphrase, you only need to add the data parenthetically:
According to Tolstoy, families where happiness rules are generally identical, but families where discontent is central have an individuality all their own (2016).
In MLA format, you use the author name and the page number(s) within your parenthetical.
Paraphrased: Families where happiness rules are generally identical, but families where discontent is central have an individuality all their own (Tolstoy, 2).
Again, if you use the author’s name in the paraphrase you just need to use the page number at the end.
Paraphrased: As Tolstoy famously asserted, families where happiness rules are generally identical, but families where discontent is central have an individuality all their own (2).
In Chicago format, footnotes are used to refer to a citation within the text. For the initial reference made, you need to write out the author’s full name, the title of the work, the publishing data, the year published and the referenced page numbers.
In the case of this paraphrased sentence: Families where happiness rules are generally identical, but families where discontent is central have an individuality all their own.
The footnote would look like:
If this is the second or more subsequent time the author or work has been referred to, then you just need an abbreviated version of this citation:
Finally, if you have already just made a reference to the book/article or work and are referring to it again, then you just need something very simple as a footnote:
With the advent of the Internet, a host of technological tools have arrived to make the job and the responsibilities of the student even easier. One such tool is Grammarly. Grammarly has a host of capabilities to help a student add variance to their writing as well as checking for mistakes in grammar or punctuation. There is even a plagiarism checker to ensure that no student jeopardizes their academic career for a moment of carelessness.
Paraphrasing is an ability that everyone reading this article possesses. You should embrace these innate skills and seek to enhance your abilities to paraphrase as it gives your writing more variety. Paraphrasing allows you to lean on the expertise of research without seeming too dependent on it. Developing your abilities to craft a good paraphrase is a talent, but the more you practice it the more at ease you will become with it.
Beardsworth, R. (1998). Derrida & the political. London: Routledge.
Bhagat, R., & Hovy, E. (2013). What Is a Paraphrase? Computational Linguistics, 39(3), 463-472. doi:10.1162/coli_a_00166
Gudmarsdottir, S. (2010). Rapes of Earth and Grapes of Wrath: Steinbeck, Ecofeminism and the Metaphor of Rape. Feminist Theology, 18(2), 206-222. doi:10.1177/0966735009348665
Leary, J. D. (2005). Post traumatic slave syndrome. Staten Island, NY: www.posttraumaticslavesyndrome.com.
MIT.edu. (n.d.). Avoiding Plagiarism – Paraphrasing | Academic Integrity at MIT. Retrieved from https://integrity.mit.edu/handbook/academic-writing/avoiding-plagiarism-paraphrasing
Orr, H. A. (2005). The genetic theory of adaptation: a brief history. Nature Reviews Genetics, 6(2), 119-127. doi:10.1038/nrg1523
Stang, N. F. (2016, March). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-transcendental-idealism/
Thorne, K. S., Price, R. H., & Macdonald, D. A. (1986). Black holes: : the membrane paradigm. New Haven (Conn.: Yale University Press.
Tolstoy, L. (2012). Karenina, Anna. Dover.