Paraphrasing

Whereas a quotation is the exact reproduction of what someone else has written (said, etc.), a paraphrase is a re-writing of text (speech, etc.). Writers who paraphrase thus re-formulate in their own words what someone else has expressed.

Definition: Paraphrase (click to expand/contract)

Oxford English Dictionary

paraphrase. noun. A rewording of something written or spoken by someone else, esp. with the aim of making the sense clearer; a free rendering of a passage.

paraphrase, verb. To express the meaning of (a written or spoken passage, or the words of an author or speaker) using different words, esp. to achieve greater clarity; to render or translate freely


In two important ways, the same rules apply to paraphrasing as to quoting:

  • the source must be identified through a properly phrased reference
  • the contents (ideas, results, etc.) of the original text may not be altered

Quoting or paraphrasing?

In some academic fields, direct references to specific texts and text passages are frequent. Writers within these fields often strive to vary between quoting and paraphrasing, as a text with too many quotations is difficult to read and comes across as too dependent on sources, whereas a text with too much paraphrasing may give the impression of being too superficial.

Whether to use a quotation or a paraphrase sometimes depends on the writer's aim in using a certain reference. If a specific phrasing or term is important, a quotation is the natural choice, whereas paraphrases may be preferable if the writer wants to clarify the argument of a complicated source text.

Below are two examples that illustrate how the same source can be used both in a quotation and in a paraphrase, and how the effect will differ slightly, depending on the form of reference that is chosen.

The source referred to in both examples is a book from 1839, Sarah Stickney Ellis's The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits (see relevant extract in fold-down text element below).

Source text used for examples (click to expand/contract)

The text below comes from a nineteenth-century bestseller, Sarah Stickney Ellis's The Women of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits. The extract outlines Ellis's view of the characteristics of British women:

In looking around, then, upon our “nation of shopkeepers,” we readily perceive that by dividing society into three classes, as regards what is commonly called rank, the middle class must include so vast a portion of the intelligence and moral power of the country at large, that it may not improperly be designated the pillar of our nation's strength, its base being the important class of the laborious poor, and its rich and highly ornamental capital, the ancient nobility of the land. In no other country is society thus beautifully proportioned, and England should beware of any deviation from the order and symmetry of her national column.

There never was a more short-sighted view of society, than that by which the women of our country have lately learned to look with envious eyes upon their superiors in rank, to rival their attainments, to imitate their manners, and to pine for the luxuries they enjoy; and consequently to look down with contempt upon the appliances and means of humbler happiness. The women of England were once better satisfied with that instrumentality of Divine wisdom by which they were placed in their proper sphere. They were satisfied to do with their own hands what they now leave undone, or repine that they cannot have others to do for them.

(Ellis, 1839, pp. 14-15)


As is seen in the examples below, the paraphrase basically offers the same information as the example with the quotation, but in the paraphrase, the writer’s own words have been used instead of a quotation from Ellis's book.

Quotation

Example:

In her discussion of what she perceives to be problems of English society at the time, Ellis (1839) argues that English middle-class women "have lately learned to look with envious eyes upon their superiors in rank, to rival their attainments, to imitate their manners, and to pine for the luxuries they enjoy" (p. 15).

Paraphrase

Example:

In her discussion of what she perceives to be problems of English society at the time, Ellis (1839) argues that English middle-class women try to imitate upper-class manners and life-style (p. 15).

Paraphrasing or summarising?

Both paraphrases and summaries are re-writings of an already existing text (speech, etc.). A summary boils down a longer text to a shorter one.

In both cases, the meaning and focus of the source text must be kept, and a reference to the source must be given.

Read more and find examples in the AWELU section on summarising:

Avoid patch-writing

If the paraphrase is too close to the source text in wording, syntax and structure, it is not a proper re-writing, but may risk being classified as patch-writing. Read more about this – and the risk of plagiarising when paraphrasing – here:

As explained in the online resource Plagiarism.org, writers who wish to paraphrase "must retain the essential ideas of the original, but significantly change the style and grammatical structure to fit in the context of their argument" (Educational tips on plagiarism prevention, Plagiarism vs. Paraphrasing)

Advice: Step-by-step guide for paraphrasing (click to expand/contract)

Step 1: Read

Read the text you intend to paraphrase carefully, making sure that you understand it fully.

Step 2: Write

When first writing down your paraphrase, do not look at the source text, but write from your memory.

Step 3: Check

Compare your draft with the source text to make sure that your paraphrase catches the essence of the source text without copying it.

A paraphrase that is too close to the original is called patchwriting, and this is regarded as a form of plagiarism. Read more about this here:

Step 4: Revise

If your text is too close to the source text, consider quoting instead of paraphrasing. Note, though, that a quotation must be verbatim, that is, the exact rendering of the source text.

If you decide to quote, read about that here:

Step 5: Give reference

Remember that proper references are needed in both paraphrases and direct quotations.