Robin’s blog: Plagiarism–Fruit of temptation

“Lead us not unto temptation” is a phrase from a prayer many of us know, and I’m probably not the only one who calls it to mind almost daily. Temptation is everywhere, from too many Christmas cookies to snapping at a difficult family member.


If you’re a writer, from a student to a world-renowned journalist, you’ve also probably faced temptation in the form of that confusing little devil called plagiarism..


I got to thinking about plagiarism in this modern age when I faced it head-on writing these blogs, especially those about the rules of grammar.


Because I’m a careful person and not always right when on that (or any other) topic, it’s my habit to do some online research as I write. I want to make sure I’m not spreading error, and sometimes I am trying to rethink it through for myself – now when is it that you start a quote with a capital? And other such fascinating topics.


How temptation begins

The temptation comes the minute I start reading what’s on the internet. It turns out perhaps thousands of well-educated people have written on those arcane topics, and I’m often startled at how well they explain things, with explanations of grammar’s nuances that are crystal clear and even beautifully written (well, perhaps only “beautiful” if you have a “thing” for grammar).


I’m safe as long as I cut, paste, and change wording…

stop sign

it’s still plagiarism if the idea belongs to someone else and you don’t attribute


So of course I do what any sane person trying to educate herself would do: I cut and paste the best phrases and paragraphs into my notes, sometimes even right into what I’m writing.


Then, of course, I go through and change the words to make it mine. But already I’m wondering, is this plagiarism? (It never was much of an issue when I was a student, when “cut and paste” meant literally that, and left a nasty hole in a book or magazine from which the cut was made).


So I rework the ideas into my own, but if it’s original or unique in any way – or maybe as I rewrite I realize the actual words the other person used were perfect – well, then I have to face up to it and attribute. That of course means, if you’re a student, hauling out the relevant style manual and doing it right.


Sometimes it’s actually more worthwhile just to start with words and ideas that are your own, and this is, indeed, one argument against laxity regarding plagiarism:


…if you put into your own words what you’ve read and studied, you pretty much have to understand it first.



The nuances of plagiarism

The whole question of course is more of a challenge to today’s student sitting at the computer. The temptations and the prevalence of various kinds of plagiarism are much increased. Much discussed too are the nuances of plagiarism, what is and what isn’t.


“Word-for-word” plagiarism is the one people usually think of, and the easiest to discern. When you get to ownership of ideas and matters like that, you’re on trickier ground, but I learned in my research that plagiarism is still considered, as it has been for probably millennia, a major intellectual “sin.”


And I realized the definition is really pretty clear. If you plagiarize, you are pretending that you thought and wrote something which actually someone else thought and wrote. It’s deception, to be blunt… or, in other words, lying.


What we do at In Writing

This is perhaps a good place to mention In Writing and the perspectives of its founder, Katie Anton. Katie tells me it’s crucial to her to make it clear that we are in no way a “paper-writing service,” to reassure both students and their teachers.

Even in our tutoring and editing, we’re careful to avoid suggesting to a student phrases or sentences to use. Rather than offer “did you mean to word it this way?” followed by a retelling in our words, we point out the places where you, the writer, need to give the point you’re making more thought.


Learning to put thoughts into words:  a formidable task

The birthplace of clear writing is in clear thinking, and being able to think clearly about something goes hand in hand with learning and understanding it. And learning to put your thoughts into words is one of the most important aspects of any kind of education.

When you’re out in the professional world, it’s sometimes the case you can delegate that responsibility. But a student can’t, and I’d argue shouldn’t. You will learn the material better, and as a bonus you’ll learn the ins and outs of your own communication style, your abilities and pitfalls (we all have them!).


Who really owns ideas?

Issues like “ownership” of ideas and the ability to trace a line of argument through sources are also major reasons to stop and think the next time you cut and paste a good set of words.


Some suggest in a modern world, maybe no ideas are really the property of one person or company. But others note that given the world as it is, with patents and copyrights galore, the question of whether ideas should be owned or not isn’t very relevant. What is relevant is the possibility of watching one’s career crash and burn after plagiarism is discovered.


For students, of course, the immediate concerns would be academic probation, suspension and even expulsion, none of which exactly advance one’s career!


When in doubt, cite

I admit I find citing sources tedious. I’d love to just take the ideas and run with them! But I’ve realized the wiser course is to slow down and be careful.


First, I’ll write the idea or information in my own words. At that point, I can see pretty clearly whether I’m restating a common fact or stealing an original idea. If there’s any doubt, I’ll stop and cite. If I realize the original writer put it better than I ever could, I’ll go back and use the direct quotation too.


At In Writing, we make this easier by helping out with accurate citation style. The main thing you need to supply is the intent to stay honest. In our experience, the vast majority of students have that intention. Plagiarism is a complicated topic to be sure, but it rests on some principles of honesty we’ve all heard about since kindergarten, if not before.

Copyright © 2014 In Writing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Robin’s blog: Quote me: a quotation mark cheat sheet


Quote marks are satisfying to me. Unlike the “who/whom” business for example – the rules on how to use quote marks make intuitive sense  – to me, at least!


Most people know the first quote rule: if the words are exactly what someone said or wrote, put them in quotes. There are exceptions to this  (is there a grammar rule without exceptions?), but it’s a start. The issue of plagiarism may come to mind, but that is a topic whose complexity merits its own  blog.


Back to the simplicity of quote marks.


Double quotes

Use double quotes (these “) around short to medium-length quotations.

The man said, “Bring me an apple.”

One study participant noted, “I would not want to do this again.”

He said he would “never do that again.”


Block quotes

If you want to use a longer quote (APA style says 40+ words) you format it as a block quote. 


With a block quote, you DO NOT use quote marks. Instead, you start the quote on a separate line (indented 1/2 inch from the left margin).


Each subsequent line of that quote lines up with the initial line.


The quote’s introductory line should end with a period or colon, not a comma.

This is perhaps most famous part of the speech Churchill made to Parliament on May 13, 1940:

I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.




Introducing an ordinary (not block) quote:  Comma or no comma?


If the preceding word is the sentence’s primary verb, put a comma after it.


Another way to think about this is whether the preceding words are the “attribution” of the quote, that is, the phrase that tells you who said (or hissed, or shouted, etc.) the quoted words:


She said, “I found the answer!”


I responded, “I don’t think you did.”


Quotes that “run in” to the sentence

If your introduction to a quote includes “that,” you’re not going to use the comma:

He said the statement was “simply not correct.”

She said that the boss was “a problem.”


Quote within a quote 

Sometimes you’ll find what is called a “quote within a quote.”  

Here, place single quotes (this ‘) on the inside.

Place exterior quotes (this “) on the outside.

He said that he “will not forego the opportunity to ‘offer…blood, toil, tears, and sweat.'”

The three dots in the example above are called an ellipsis, and are used to indicate words left out of the middle of the quote. 

There we begin to enter the treacherous territory of actually using quotes, tricks such as when to use a four-point ellipsis, how to incorporate a comma with an ellipsis, and on and on.

In this short – and I hope simple – list of samples we’ll avoid those topics, too.


Punctuation:  Inside or outside the quotes?

There is one final point, and it’s one of my favorites, partly because it’s done incorrectly so often.


Please, please put ending punctuation inside the quote marks. (If you want the exception to that, it’s the semicolon, but that occurrence is rarer than a clear grammar rule!)


“Man the fort,” he said. “We will prevail, or die trying!”


He quoted Churchill accurately, saying, “Man the fort; we have nothing to offer but ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat.'”


A final thought, occasioned by Churchill’s eloquence: punctuation and its companion grammar, as demonstrated above, can confuse and challenge the best of us. But we can look to Churchill’s words – not the punctuation surrounding them – to find what really matters.

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