Plagiarism – and when to worry about it

Because Classical Writing is BIG TIME into imitation, paraphrasing, and copybook, we often get asked where the line is between imitation and plagiarism. It is a valid question, one I have answered on the message boards and in blogs before, but one I would like to update and expand with this post.

According to, plagiarism is an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.

The above definition is a bit clunky, but let’s pay attention to the critical parts of this definition. First, however, let me bring in a comparison.

“To steal” is (also
to take (the property of another or others) without permission or right, especially secretly or by force.

Stealing and Plagiarism

Note that stealing is not taking the property of another. Those of us who live with other human beings in our house do that all the time. It’s taking the property of another without permission or right that constitutes theft.

Similarly, plagiarism is not using or closely imitating language and thoughts of another. That also happens all the time. We are human beings, and we learn from human beings who went before us. We imitate their language, we imitate the way previous generations buildthouses, the way they did education, etc. We are constantly learning from and using ideas and skills that older people have passed down to us. That is imitation. We’d be dead without it.

Both the definition of stealing and the definition of plagiarism hinge on the fact that the act is done without authorization, permission, or (in the case of plagiarism) attribution. When I plagiarize, I am representing someone else’s work as my own, and I am not crediting the original author.


This attribution piece is critical. Plagiarism is not “using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another person”. “Using or closely imitating” happens all the time. For example, Sesame Street clips show “The King and I” or “The Thirty-nine Steps” in their Monsterpiece Theatre, a comedic imitation of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. In the case of of this Sesame Street example, the imitation is so close the attribution is evident in the name of the piece.

Your students need to imitate the poetry and paragraphs written by great writers. Part of the process of learning to do any human skill well is analyzing and imitating how those who do it well have done it.

Classical Writing – Student Analysis and Imitation

Part of the process of learning to write well includes analyzing and imitating great writing. SO LONG AS your student’s imitations are not passed off as his or her own great words and thoughts, no plagiarism is taking place.

The same thing happens with recipes. Your mother-in-law brings a great potato dish to Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone devours it, and your mother proudly announces that she got the recipe from Great-auntie Di. Ever since, your family calls the dish Auntie Di’s Potatoes. Later that month you bring the dish to a church Christmas dinner, and when someone asks for the recipe, you faithfullly copy it and title it Auntie Di’s potatoes. You could have passed it off as your own potato recipe coming from your own culinary genius, but you know that would be dishonest, so you don’t.

When we copy or imitate others, we attribute. The attribution is done out of respect and humility, since we know the idea did not originate with us.

Antiquity and Plagiarism

That being said, the ancients were not as obsessed with attributions as we are today.

For one thing, paper was not cheap. Things were crammed on paper. There was little or no punctuation, and often in ancient manuscripts, there were few or no spaces between words. So the less you could get away with putting on paper, the more paper you saved. (And when the paper was parchment, which came from animal skins, every word you saved was worth it.)

In ancient and medieval times, information was less abundant, and rather than seeing copying without attribution as plagiarism, ancient folks viewed it as flattering when someone copied, borrowed, or ‘stole’ ideas and adopted them as their own.

Modernity and Plagiarism

In modern times, paper is cheap, we have information overload, and the concept of intellectual property is extremely important to us. Many of us live off of the words we write, and we would lose our living if others could just copy our ideas and the content of our work and start selling it as their own work.

So many people are literate, and so many people are writers that we need to guard our intellectual property. As a result we have an acute need to define plagiarism and to teach our students what it is so they do not find themselves on the wrong side of that fine line.

College Students and Plagiarism

At the college where I teach, I have one or two instances of plagiarism every semester. Usually it is associated with an online homework assignment where the student is asked to write a short paragraph describing a scientific phenomenon. The temptation to surf the web and gently “borrow” what Wikipedia can say so much better than the student can is great, and it happens. We have “safe-assign” connected with our online Blackboard shell for each course specifically to “help” students not borrow other people’s words. And yet, it happens, and I bet you that I don’t catch all the instances of it.

Plagiarism in college is a serious offense. Each school has a different progression of steps in their student honor code for how the institution deals with it. Blatant plagiarism on the part of a student or on the part of a professor CAN lead to expulsion.

The reason that “borrowing” from Wikipedia and passing it off as my own is such a huge deal is that that sort of “borrowing” can bring about huge law suits. In science publication circles, one instance of passing someone else’s works off as one’s own can terminate your career in the field — if the plagiarism is done in a published-peer-reviewed context.

So clearly, students need to know what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

Teaching your Students about Plagiarism

An innocent third grader who remembers the story of the Hare and the Tortoise so well that she tells it almost verbatim in her own retelling of the story is not plagiarizing. She is retelling a story that is common knowledge, and it is a tribute to her amazing memory that she writes it as close to the original as she does, not an indication of her tendencies to plagiarize.

In addition, there is much writing that is part of a body of publically available works. For example, nobody has a copyright to the content of Aesop’s fables, nor to the Biblical narratives, nor to George Washington and the infamous cherry tree he chopped down.

It is difficult to plagiarize those commonly known pieces–as in, pass them off as if they are our own ideas and words– because everyone knows they are not ours. In the same vein, neither do we have to obsess about writing in an attribution because everyone knows the story of honest George and his little axe, so the moment I refer to it in my own writing, it is clear to my readership that I do not pretend that the story is my own. I am merely having fun with the story in my word play, or perhaps I am referring to it to make a bigger point in my essay.

Plagiarism is theft of intellectual property, pure and simple. Students who plagiarize are taking words and ideas that are not their own and taking credit for those words and ideas. That is wrong. It always was wrong.

Teach your students specifically what plagiarism is, and help them to avoid plagiarism by

1. Getting the author’s permission to use part of his or her work, when applicable

2. Clearly listing sources and intents in the document.

a. For gradeschoolers – As title and subtitle: The Hare and the Tortoise – A Space retelling of Aesop’s famous fable by Suzie Q. Homeschooler

b. For junior high and high schoolers – At the end of the document as part of the reference list or annotated bibliography “Passage imitated from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, section 2, paragraph 3.”

The two types of attributions listed above, belong in a formal paper, not in a workbook exercise, or in daily word, grammar, or paragraph imitation exercises.

While we need to take plagiarism seriously, we do not need to obsess over it in daily exercises that nobody but student and teacher see.

About Lene Jaqua

Co-author of Classical Writing books
This entry was posted in Analysis, Citations, Classical Education, Classical Writing Method, Copybook, Essay Writing, Imitation, Uncategorized, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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