Plagiarism- is it more complicated than I thought?

So, I’m perusing my syllabus for my English class, and I notice something very odd. In the section about plagiarism, not only does it reinforce that knowingly copying other people’s work or using a paper writing service is enough to get you kicked out of college, it also talks about something called “careless plagiarism” That’s when you steal “ideas” such as spoken material, paragraphs, sentences and phrases. ??? Okaaaaay. THEN, it gets even weirder and says that even commonly used phrases and cliches used in your essays count as plagiarism since they’re not yours. WHAT THE HELL?!?!?

I’m totally paranoid now. I know that it’s unlikely that I’m going to accidentally plagiarize, but how can you avoid using common phrases and possible cliches at all times? I’m not even sure what that means!!! Can someone please clarify this for me and possibly give me an example?

MODS: if this is more suited to MPSIMS, please move it. Thanks.

Your teacher is trying to wean you off of the practice of using common cliches. Threatening you with a plagiarism rap is pretty harsh, but you’ll be a better writer for your effort.

Yeah, you probably can’t get through an entire essay without using some kind of cliche. But under your teacher’s threatening glare, you’ll sure make an effort to use a lot fewer of them!

I would, but I don’t answer plagiarists.

Seriously, I would think “ideas” refer to creative output, not informational output. I’m not sure about the ‘commonly used phrases’ part, but you can’t copy sentences verbatim like “The events of days past have been traumatic” - copying that exact phrasing might be frowned upon, even if the statement is originally used in a non-fictional context.

Tangentially, I came across an interesting article on writing mistakes.

I’d confront my teacher about it just 'cause I don’t take kindly to such threats. Why doesn’t the teacher just be out with it and say that use of such commonly used phrases will greatly lower your grade on the given work?

My god.

Oh! Oh! Better! Tell your teacher that another instructor already threatened you with a plagiarism charge in another class, and “can’t you come up with something a skosh more original to motivate me?”

Careful! I saw the word “Plagiarize” in another book once. I think you might be skirting the line…

You also might not know that the following count as “careless” plagiarism: grammar errors, using margins that are too wide, putting the period outside the quotes, and forgetting to staple your pages.


I think you should copy the definition of “plagiarism” from a good dictionary (giving credit needless to say) and send it to the teacher. If I were a student I would do it anonymously since he might be the kind that reacts badly to being contradicted. I don’t think there is anything either illegal or unethical about doing that.

Plagiarism is always a tricky question. It used to be that borrowing of ideas was perfectly legitimate, although it was good to give credit. The whole intellectual propery thing has gotten out of hand and people are making all sorts of claims about ideas being stolen. The whole point of the copyright laws was to encourage people to publish so ideas could be spread and reused. Only their expression was protected.

For students, it is a little different. Generally, students are not expected to have original ideas and so long as they put things in their own words and gave credit to the original, it was OK. Now there are on-line essay-mills that will do that for you.

So according to that definition it seems the only logical way to avoid plagiarism is to invent your own language in which to write all your papers. :smiley:

Seriously, stealing ‘ideas’? Are we now expected to have a catalog readily available of all major ideas ever espoused by anyone in authority on all subjects in order to avoid this kind of plagiarism? I’d like to know if anyone can expound upon just what this kind of plagiarism would encompass because I’ve never heard of anything like that in any of my classes before.

Thanks for all the replies so far! It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who thinks the plagiarism threats were a little extreme. The stealing ideas thing kind of bothers me, because it seems really likely that no matter what topics I choose for my essays, someone else somewhere in the world would have used the same topic, and I’m am carelessly plagiarizing them by not having knowledge of every essay ever written. Sheesh. I should just take XJetgirlX’s advice and invent my own language. Then, when she asks what kind of gibberish I turned in, I’ll just tell her that I was so afraid of plagiarism that I created my own form of communication. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. . .

Yeah that seems a little much to me. So you can’t call something a “Catch-22” or refer to the “light at the end of the tunnel” without giving proper attribution.

But look, the instructor probably copied that definition of plagiarism from somebody else without giving it much thought (and probably without giving any credit. Ooooh the irony) I’d be inclined to (1) be careful not to plagiarize; (2) avoid using cliches like the ones I used above; and (3) not worry about it too much.

I suppose that (without raising the plagiarism issue), you might ask the instructor for an example of a paper from a previous class that he or she considered to be really good so you can see what the professor deems to be acceptable.