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Paraphrase like a pro

Did you hear? Hip-song singer Nicki Minaj was fined a whopping $450,000 after being found guilty of plagiarising a song by Tracy Chapman titled, “Sorry”. Plagiarism is also a serious offence in academic writing. So, don’t be sorry like Nicki Minaj. Make sure you know how to paraphrase correctly.

What is paraphrasing?

Some assume that paraphrasing is simply rearranging and replacing words. Well, it is, and it isn’t. This is just one aspect. On a simplistic level, think of it as telling Friend B what Friend A told you. You would say it differently, right? But you would retain the essence of what was said, i.e. you would paraphrase.

Let’s take a look at various academic texts with poor paraphrasing and see how they can be improved.

X Poor paraphrase: Due to limitations on movement and a substantial slowdown of social and economic activities, air quality in many places around the world has improved, as has water pollution.

This paraphrase is ineffective because it uses some of the original author’s words and the same sentence order. There is also no author citation, which is a big no-no.

Key lesson: Always include an in-text citation, regardless of whether you paraphrase your source or use a partial or full quotation. Side note: Check out our infographic above, which explains how to use Harvard Referencing. Keep in mind that this is just one referencing style so be sure to check which citation method is used by your institution.

Now that we’ve analysed what’s wrong with this paraphrase, let’s study improved versions:

Good paraphrase v1: Rume and Islam (2020) assert that both air and water pollution have shown an improvement in many urban areas worldwide as a result of limitations imposed on movement in addition to less activity in the business and social spheres.

The meaning of the original has been conveyed in the new author’s own words. Synonyms have also been used in place of keywords and the sentence order has been altered.

Key lesson: If you can’t find an appropriate synonym, consider changing the word form. In the above example, “improve” (verb) has been changed to “[shown an] improvement” (noun).

Good paraphrase v2: Studies indicate that both air and water pollution have been reduced in many urban areas worldwide as a result of limitations imposed on movement and a ‘significant slowdown’ of activity in business and social spheres. (Rume and Islam, 2020, p. 3).

This paraphrase effectively utilises a combination of the new author’s own words and a partial quote (‘significant slowdown’).

Key lesson: Quote any phrases that would make the paraphrase more meaningful when left in their original form, or for which it is difficult to find suitable synonyms.

More practice

Now for another academic text:

Two of the paraphrased versions below are acceptable, while one is not. Can you identify them?

1. Dzulkifli and Mustafar (2013) assert that colour aids us in memorising particular details by boosting our attentional functioning.

2. According to Dzulkifli and Mustafar (2013), colour aids in improving memory by enhancing our focus.

3. Our ability to memorise particular types of intelligence can be enhanced through the use of colour, which boosts our ‘attentional level’ (Dzulkifli and Mustafar 2013, p. 4).

X Poor paraphrase: Example 2.

While the authors have been cited, there are two issues here, both related to meaning:

·        “Attentional” (in the original) is a subject-specific term used in psychology to refer not just to our ability to focus but other psychological functions as well. Therefore, the new author has not conveyed the full meaning of a technical term accurately.
·        The original does not state that colour helps us to memorise all information, but certain information. 

Key lesson: Read the original text carefully to ensure that you understand the nuances of meaning and make sure that these are accurately conveyed in your paraphrase.

Good paraphrases: Examples 1 and 3 are improvements because:

·        They retain the essence of the original text’s meaning as well as the correct technical phrase. “Keywords that are specialised subject vocabulary do not need to be changed,” says the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which makes sense. (I doubt, for instance, that there’s an adequate medical synonym for Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia!).
·        Sources are cited.

In conclusion, successful paraphrasing is not just about changing the sentence structure and a few words. It’s about retelling someone’s ideas while retaining the meaning of the original text. (Yes I’m also talking to you, Nicki Minaj).


By Leigh-Anne Hunter


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