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What Is a Paraphrase?

Mark Wollacott
Mark Wollacott

A paraphrase occurs when a person attempts to convey a quote from a text or another person without using the exact same words. A quote is a word-for-word rendition of what a person said, whereas a paraphrase contains the same meaning, but not the same words. There can be a number of reasons for paraphrasing somebody else, such as to refer to something somebody said without having the text or quote in hand. This is often done in off-the-cuff speeches, everyday conversations and in circumstances where a person’s words were not recorded.

They are also used when a writer or student wishes to make use of a large amount of text from a source, but cannot quote all of it directly because it exceeds reasonable limit. In these circumstances, the paraphrasing is used in order to make the text appear less like the original, but still have it retain the same essential information. This is different from plagiarism, in which someone writes what someone else said or wrote word-for-word. A patchwork paraphrase would change significant portions of the sentence, but not the whole. If this is for an essay, thesis or for a paid article for publication, this might be construed as plagiarism.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Paraphrases can be used to turn a sentence on its head in order to change a point of view or to swap the object and subjects around. This kind of deliberate re-working of a sentence should not be considered plagiarism. It is best done if the phrase or text is broken up into its main points and completely understood before being re-worked.

Using Horatio Nelson as an example, it is possible to see how paraphrasing works. One of his many quotes includes the line “Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a sea fight above all.” Nelson believes an admiral cannot plan for every eventuality when engaging in a fight, especially one fought on the high seas. The previous sentence is a paraphrase. Not a single element of the sentence is the same as the quote, but it conveys the same meaning.

Using the Nelson quote once more, the sentence can be completely re-worked while keeping Nelson’s ideas in play. Nelson wanted to say that an admiral cannot plan for everything, but that this also goes for anyone trying to plan anything. He also believed that when fighting at sea, events can be even less predictable than in other circumstances. Nelson might have said that “It is especially the case with naval engagements, such as maneuvers between enemy fleets, that any attempt to plan anything to the exactest detail is doomed to failure, so the leader or admiral must leave things beyond their control to fate.”

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