Plagiarism FAQ

Plagiarism: Frequently Asked Questions


print this page

How many consecutive words of the author can I use before I risk plagiarism?

 

Can I use the author’s sentence structure and just substitute synonyms for the author’s words?

When I quote an author, may I make minor changes to or leave words out of the quotation?

May I add italics to words within a quote?

How can I blend quotations into my text?

What happens if I find other sources cited by the author to support the view I want to cite? Do I have to cite all of his sources?

Should I try to cite sources when writing about topics that seem to be common knowledge?


What if I can’t remember where I read or heard about a particular idea?


Q. How many consecutive words of the author can I use before I risk plagiarism?

There is no specific number. Chances are, if you’re asking this question, you’re relying too heavily on sources and should instead think more deeply on your own about your topic. Use your sources more selectively: choose key concepts, or quote phrases or sentences from the source in support of your claim when something is well said. You could also quote to represent the opposing view accurately. However, if the source is mostly useful not for its concise wording but for the information it provides, paraphrase the information in your own words, introducing the paraphrase by crediting the author, and ending with a footnote.

return to the top of the page

Q. Can I use the author’s sentence structure and just substitute synonyms for the author’s words?

If you’re looking to insert synonyms into an author’s original sentence structure, you’re still relying too heavily on the source. Changing the wording and copying the sentence structure may mean that you have not fully digested the content of what you’re reading. Follow the guidelines for quoting and paraphrasing, paying special attention to the example of “maintaining your own voice.”

return to the top of the page

Q. When I quote an author, may I make minor changes to or leave words out of the quotation?

Minor changes may be made to blend the quotation into the grammar of your sentence, help the reader understand pronoun references it contains, or focus the reader on certain important information. Any change must be clearly indicated, and the original meaning must be strictly preserved. Indicate additions by placing them in brackets [ ].1 If you leave words or phrases out, you must use ellipsis points correctly: use three ellipsis points, each one separated by a space, to show words left out within a sentence. When you leave out full sentences or begin with words in one sentence and finish with words from another, use four ellipsis points.

CORRECT: Machen reminds us that “Modern liberalism . . . is at any rate no longer merely an academic matter.”1

          1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 15.


return to the top of the page

Q. May I add italics to words within a quote?

You may add italics to emphasize a point, but this must be noted in one of two ways: (1) immediately following the italicized word, insert “emphasis added” in brackets; or (2) in the footnote, following the page number and a semicolon, insert “emphasis added.”

CORRECT: The church should fight to defend the truth of Scripture and to dedicate itself to “a more earnest search after truth and a more loyal devotion to it [emphasis added] when once it is found.”1

          1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 15.

 

CORRECT: The church should fight to defend the truth of Scripture and to dedicate itself to “a more earnest search after truth and a more loyal devotion to it when once it is found.”1

          1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 15; emphasis added.


return to the top of the page

Q. How can I blend quotations into my text?

When using quotes of fewer than five lines, you may introduce them with the name of the author and a verb such as writes, claims, or argues.2

Correct: Concerning liberalism, Machen claims, “its attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is being carried on vigorously by Sunday-School ‘lesson-helps,’ by the pulpit, and by the religious press.”1

          1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 15.


You may also integrate the quotation into your sentence, making sure the author’s wording fits your sentence structure grammatically, that it does not interrupt the flow of your thought, and that pronouns have correct and clear antecedents.3

CORRECT: We must consider the fact that an “attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is being carried on vigorously by Sunday-School ‘lesson-helps,’ by the pulpit, and by the religious press.”1

          1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 15.

 

If the quote is five lines or longer, you may use a block quotation. Single space and indent the lines you are quoting. You should not use quotation marks at the beginning or end of a block quote because the indentation and single spacing indicate that the words are quoted from another source. You should, however, insert a footnote at the end of the citation.4

CORRECT: Many theologians have buckled under the pressure of liberal Christianity, but Machen was not among them. Note his treatment of the topic in the very first chapter of Christianity and Liberalism:

Modern liberalism in the Church, whatever judgment may be passed upon it, is at any rate no longer merely an academic matter. . . . On the contrary its attack upon the fundamentals of the Christian faith is being carried on vigorously by Sunday-School “lesson-helps,” by the pulpit, and by the religious press.1

          1 J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), 15.

 

return to the top of the page

Q. What happens if I find other sources cited by the author to support the view I want to cite? Do I have to cite all of his sources?

If you are paraphrasing information from a source—for example, a commentary—that cites other sources for support, you only have to cite the source you are consulting. If it is necessary to mention "Author B," with whom "Author A" is interacting, in order to make sure the reader accurately understands the context for your quotation of "Author A," you may mention “Author B” when you introduce the quote:

Correct: Interacting with Jones, Brown asserts, ". . . ."

 

If you want to use a quotation that is reprinted in a source, look the quote up in the original, so that you can understand and fairly represent the meaning of the quotation in its original context. If the original source is inaccessible, you may use the form for citing "One Source Quoted in Another."5

return to the top of the page

Q. Should I try to cite sources when writing about topics that seem to be common knowledge?

Common knowledge is defined as information that is well-known and generally assumed to be true by those who read and write on the topic.6 You would not be expected to cite a specific work when you draw on this common knowledge, but if you take specific ideas from a source, cite that source.

return to the top of the page

Q. What if I can’t remember where I read or heard about a particular idea?

If you cannot remember where you heard an idea or read a quotation, don’t panic. If you have learned about the idea or quote from an everyday conversation or in Email with a friend, pastor, or professor, you may cite that person in a footnote, but it is not necessary to include an entry for it in the bibliography. If you remember a quotation, try to look up the quotation, and omit it if it cannot be verified. If the idea could be considered common knowledge, see our FAQ on citing common knowledge.

return to the top of the page

Return to Plagiarism at Westminster


1 Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 351–57.

2 For a list of other verbs, see the CTW handout “Blending Quotations.”

3 Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 75–77 and 347–48.

4 Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 349–350.

5 Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 215; Center for Theological Writing, Citation and Formatting Guide (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Theological Seminary), 43.

6 “Common knowledge” generally refers to dates of events in history, well-known phrases (e.g., “All men are created equal”), geographical information, genealogies, names of people, and information gathered through the senses. David Blakesley and Jeffrey L. Hoogeveen, The Thomson Handbook (Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsorth, 2008), 360-61.