Paraphrasing vs Plagiarism (vs “Paraphrasing Plagiarism”)

If you’ve done a fair share of writing, academically or otherwise, you’ve likely heard of both plagiarizing and paraphrasing. You’ve probably combed over essays or reports for accurate information and correct citations, but somehow someone always spot something you missed.

It can be confusing to avoid plagiarism with so many types out there and without a clear outline of the rules. Even more so when paraphrasing plagiarism sits on a fine line between what’s allowed and what’s not.

What Is Plagiarism?

Most people have a basic understanding of plagiarism: copying someone else’s words or work without crediting the original author or owner.

If you were to borrow a direct quotation from a famous film character and claim it as your own idea, chances are no one would believe you. But, that doesn’t change the fact that it would be considered plagiarism.

We tend to hear about plagiarism in terms of written works, but it covers all manner of works. A general guideline is to consider copyright. If it can be copyrighted, it can be plagiarized.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is the legal protection of intellectual property. Therefore, only the copyright owner has the legal right to reproduce or allow the reproduction of their work.

While many authors, artists, composers, and creators might choose to file the paperwork to claim the copyright of their work, you don’t need to make it official. Copyright is intrinsic. The second you complete your poem or compose a new song, you are the copyright owner.

Copyright law can vary depending on the country. Although there is no such thing as international copyright, most countries offer some protections for foreign works.

In the US, copyright protection lasts for the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years. Additionally, work for hire, anonymous, or pseudonymous lasts 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation. As creation and publication are different standards, the protection defaults to whichever is shorter.


What if an artist borrowed a section of Starry Night, such as using the sky portion over an original cityscape? Imagine the artist doesn’t have malicious intent but rather the intention to pay homage to an inspirational creator.

While writing your original novel, what if you include a paragraph or chapter that plays off ‘Riddles in the Dark’ from The Hobbit? Of course, Gollum and Bilbo aren’t in the scene, but your characters similarly exchange riddles.

Van Gogh died in 1890, so he no longer owns the copyright. Therefore, works by Van Gogh are in the public domain, meaning the general public may use or recreate them without obtaining permission.

Public domain includes works with expired copyrights, public works intended for general public use, and short phrases. For example, “Beam me up,” most associated with Star Trek is free to use.

However, if you were to try to quote an entire line of dialogue from Star Trek, such as including names and phrases more extended than a sentence, you would be infringing copyright. Using that brief three-word phrase might pay homage to your favorite show, but quoting an exchange of dialogue with Scotty and Kirk would be plagiarism.

As for the second homage example, J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, which means his estate still has legal rights. Therefore, if you were to imitate the scene or chapter without permission or crediting Tolkien, the homage would be plagiarism.

Taking it a step further, let’s assume you credit Tolkien for inspiring the scene in the author’s notes at the end of your book. It would not be plagiarism if you wrote a scene where two characters exchanged riddles trying to win a prize. However, it would be plagiarism if those two characters were in a cave, one of them promising not to kill the other if they win.

The difference is that plagiarism is when you copy the presentation of an idea. For example, no one owns the concept of riddles or games, which means your homage might paraphrase the idea of riddles-to-the-death, but not the exact words. However, it’s not homage when you place characters in a strikingly similar situation and connotation for more than a phrase or scene.

Types of Plagiarism

There are many types of plagiarism. Some sources disagree about the amount, as some break down more specific categories while others generalize. Here we’ll discuss the general types with clarification on how they might divide into subcategories.


Word for word plagiarism is the simplest, most familiar type. Notably, copying, at any length, from a direct sentence to a direct paragraph would be verbatim plagiarism.

Mosaic or patchwork plagiarism falls under verbatim. However, mosaic plagiarism includes instances where the writer mentioned the quoted work earlier, but it is not directly connected.

For example, if you were discussing The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields,” you might mention the title in the first paragraph of your essay. Then, you open the third paragraph with lyrics from the song. You know you’re quoting the music, and Beatles fans know, but you need your essay to acknowledge the use within direct proximity.

For a correct example:

  • ‘Always, no sometimes, think it’s me / But you know I know when it’s a dream,’ is an iconic lyric from “Strawberry Fields.”


If you own the work, you can recreate it. However, the same isn’t true when you’re submitting work. For example, if you write an essay about Hamlet in high school, presenting the same paper for a university class is self-plagiarism.

Legal action is rarely necessary for self-plagiarism unless you promised an original work and breached a contract.

Accidental Plagiarism

When a citation isn’t precise, it is still plagiarism, even if the intention was to credit another creator. Crucial to avoiding this type of plagiarism is understanding your preferred manual of style.

Generally, Associated Press (AP) applies to journalism, Chicago for publishing/business, American Psychological Association (APA) for academic writing, and Modern Language Association (MLA) for humanities disciplines.

Accidental plagiarism includes inaccurate citation, failure to acknowledge, attribution or inaccurate source plagiarism, and paraphrasing.

What Is Paraphrasing Plagiarism?

Paraphrasing is not always plagiarism. Effective paraphrasing requires an understanding of the topic or quote well enough to express it originally. It is a form of summarizing or rephrasing that clarifies the meaning of another author’s words in your own words.

A common pitfall of paraphrasing is copying a sentence or direct quote, then the writer tweaks a few words, rewords sentences, or replaces original words with synonyms. Choosing to modify rather than rewrite from scratch is paraphrasing plagiarism.

For an example of paraphrasing plagiarism: Imagine you’re writing that Hamlet essay. During your research, you read an inspiring analysis. If you copy phrases or sentences directly from that analysis, you would be plagiarising. Likewise, rewording a metaphor or sentence you liked would be paraphrasing plagiarism.

However, you could quote a phrase and include a citation. Alternatively, you could write an original interpretation of that idea.

How to Avoid Paraphrasing Plagiarism

The first step to avoid paraphrasing plagiarism is never to copy and paste. However, if while reading your notes over and over, you’ve lost track of where your original words begin, and the quotation ends, a paraphrasing plagiarism tool can catch mistakes that slip through the cracks.

Avoiding plagiarism can be tricky without extra eyes. However, whether your writing process involves meticulous text citation or you sometimes lose track of your source material, a plagiarism checker can save your hard work from accidental plagiarism, including incorrect paraphrasing.

Focus on making your writing the best it can be without stressing over plagiarism. Check out Quetext’s plagiarism checker, which recognizes plagiarism lightning-fast and generates any missed citations.